Theater Review: HEAR HER SING FOR FREEDOM (Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on January 18, 2023

in Theater-Regional


In a weekend of numerous uplifting events celebrating the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hear Her Sing for Freedom stood out for bringing forward the life and role of Coretta Scott King, who married Dr. King in 1953. Coretta Scott was a serious vocalist and political activist before she met Martin, joining the NAACP while in college. She had good reason to be an activist. As Hear Her Sing for Freedom informs us, white racists burned down the house her father had built for his family when Coretta was a child, and like all People of Color, she faced racial barriers and discrimination throughout her life.

Despite growing up in rural Alabama with access to few educational resources, Coretta’s hard work and talent, along with the support of some of her teachers, eventually won her a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While there, she met Martin, then a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Boston University. After the assassination of MLK, Coretta continued to agitate and advocate not only for the rights of People of Color, but for LGBTQ people as well. We also learn that after Martin’s murder, Coretta maintained a friendship with two other widows of men who were assassinated for their activism: Myrlie Evers (widow of Medgar Evers) and Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X).

Coretta performed some 50 concerts in her lifetime, with the proceeds going to support the civil rights movement. Hear Her Sing for Freedom is just such a concert, adapted and staged by Najee Ayman Brown, the new director of the Multicultural Arts Center. With a gorgeous voice, and bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Coretta, Natasha Ellis narrates details of Coretta’s life between the musical numbers, which include spirituals, gospel hymns, and blues. Ellis’s command of the monologues — many well-chosen excerpts from King’s biography — is impressive.

You would never know the production was pulled together quickly if you had attended one of the four performances during the MLK holiday weekend. The backup singers (Hanifa Kamau, Selefana Kamau, Richard Parris Scott) were tight and provided the support Ellis needed to carry the music. Scott was especially notable for a deep bass to tenor range. The musicians were phenomenal — composer and bandleader Stu Dias, pianist and arranger Andrew Strout, Andrew Emmanuel on a soulful sax, Geraldo Marshall on a rousing trumpet, and Rob Gerry on a mean double bass.

While the historic former courtroom in the Multicultural Arts Center is a gorgeous space, often rented for weddings, the stage area wasn’t really large enough to allow full appreciation of the emotionally riveting dancers Patricka James and Janelle Gilchrist execute Jeryl Palana Pilapil‘s rhythmic choreography.

Mr. Brown said it was pure coincidence that he mounted a production focusing on Coretta during the unveiling of The Embrace, the massive and controversial new piece of public art on Boston Common that celebrates and commemorates the Boston meeting of Martin and Coretta, as well as their devotion to one another and to their shared mission of creating what MLK termed “the beloved community.” Even so, it was more than fitting — and refreshing — to see this tremendous production honoring the life of the woman who contributed so much to expanding freedom for all of us. It is my hope that Brown will find opportunities to stage his work again in the not-so-distant future.

photos ©2023 Glenn Scott Egli

Hear Her Sing for Freedom
Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St in East Cambridge, MA
played January 13-16, 2023
for more info and events, call 617-577-1400 or visit Multicultural Arts Center

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