I predict tickets for Train Is Comin’, at Open Door Theater, Harrison and Ridgeland in Oak Park, will be hard to come by once word of mouth gets around about just how remarkable and energizing this show is. There’s a stellar cast with exceptional voices who provide a very uplifting experience. The playwright, McKinley Johnson, is also the director and choreographer of this wonderful foot-tapping a cappella gospel musical.
The play, which ran so long at the Chicago Theatre Company in the mid-1990s that it broke records, tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a student troupe of nine young former slaves whose whirlwind fundraising concert tour in the 19th century saved historically black Fisk University in Nashville from certain bankruptcy.
Train is Comin’ celebrates the endurance and tenacity of a group of young, newly freed African Americans who have left their rural family settings to attend Fisk, a financially troubled new institution of higher learning. The school was established in the chaotic Reconstruction Era to educate and provide opportunities for blacks.
Often these young singers are in grave danger from attacks by drunken mobs. If they attract too much attention, they will be perceived as being uppity or elitist and run the risk of getting lynched. They have to cope with bitter treatment, even by reporters, and constantly grapple with Jim Crow segregation. They are frequently unable to stay in any available hotels; if they are allowed in, they can only eat after all the white guests have finished and have left the dining room. They are forced to ride in train cabooses.
Though resilient and dedicated, the group is so poor they go without meals and lack the warm clothing needed for touring Northern cities. They must also be paragons of virtue; they can never “cuss” or drink or fight, even in self-defense.
Though there are 10 characters, we get to know each fairly well. The amazing and talented Toni Lynice Fountain, who has graced many local productions lately, is the somewhat older leader of the singing group, Miss Ella Shepard. Like each of the young people she guides, Shepard also bears the deep emotional wounds of slavery. In one powerful, unforgettable scene she has a tearful meltdown as she relates how in her early childhood her own mother was sold by a slave-owner.
Initially Miss Shepard, the choir director, adamantly and defiantly refuses to allow the group to sing any spirituals – which she refers to as “plantation melodies.” She sees that body of music as representing the painful past they are striving to overcome; she also wants to avoid the degrading stereotypes being perpetuated by the white minstrel shows who were touring the land, performing “coon songs” in black-face make-up.
At first the Fisk Singers sing European hymns, sentimental popular hits by Stephen Foster, and stuff like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But eventually the group begins to perform spirituals. This body of music quickly became popular on their national concert circuit. Rather than denigrating the African-American experience as was initially feared, the songs helped whites view blacks more sympathetically and more positively.
The music is lively and beautifully performed, and spirited choreography amplifies the lyrics, such as when the singers become a “train” while they perform “Get On Board, Little Children.”
There is racial conflict within the troupe, too. Willie Charles Rollins, for instance, plays a light-skinned young man whose father had been a house slave with a few more privileges than the brutalized field hands. So this character has a different view of white people than his fellow choir members.
Tierra Whetstone and Domnique Reid, playing future teachers, fuss at one another about “good hair” (straight like white folks’ hair). Jazell Morris, a light-skinned, rather middle class young lady, is pursued by darker-skinned Bernell Lassai. Quiana McNary voices angry attitudes of racial self-hatred.
But lest you think this is too grim or emotionally difficult, remember that it is a zesty musical containing 20-some soul-stirring spirituals.
The set, designed by Josh Prisching, includes a background of rustic wood – old, weathered planks that look like they might have come from barns or slave cabins. There is a large tree, stage right. In the initial scene, a historic photograph of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, projected above the heads of the performers, shows the original nine performers posed symmetrically in front of a woodsy-looking theatrical backdrop.