By Samuel L. Leiter
Wikipedia lists 496 municipalities in Arkansas, none of them named Broadbend, the town in the title of the Transport Group’s unconventional, excellently performed, but problematic and ultimately unsatisfying new musical at The Duke on 42nd Street. The events described in Broadbend, Arkansas are also fictional, although reflective of what happened during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and are still happening in America today.
Broadbend, Arkansas is in two acts, each performed by a single actor-singer (except for a brief scene in the second shared by both actors). The acts, although narratively connected, are each by a different librettist, but the music for both is by Ted Shen, who also provided additional lyrics. Act one, “Just One ‘Q’,” set in the Broadbend Nursing Home in 1961, is by Ellen Fitzhugh. Act two, “Ruby,” by Harrison David Rivers, takes place in a cemetery in 1988.
These (mostly) solo pieces showcase the actors by having them perform on a bare, wide, platform. Three simple chairs are used in act one; act two uses no props at all. Situated along the upstage wall, and artfully lit by Jen Schriever (who does a first-class job throughout), is an outstanding, seven-member ensemble of strings and reeds, gracefully conducted by pianist Deborah Abramson. Given the sparse visuals, it’s difficult not to watch them almost as much as one does the wonderful actors, Justin Cunningham and Danyel Fulton. (Bizarrely, neither is mentioned on the program’s credit page.)
“Just One ‘Q’” opens with a long scene that turns out to be little more than digressive background color for everything that follows. In it, Benny (Cunningham), the black orderly in a white nursing home, describes the contentious relationship of two women, the elderly Bertha and the much younger Julynne.
Speaking cornpone dialogue, the women expose their mutual resentment during heated games of Scrabble. Driving their animosity is Bertha’s anger at Julynne for stealing Bertha’s womanizing (and worse) ex-husband, Greene Cotton, who fathered a large brood with her. He ended up with Julynne, but only after an emasculating run-in with Bertha’s iron. Each woman claims the right to be buried with the late gigolo.
Benny agrees to drive Bertha to live with a daughter in Memphis, leaving his twin, three-year-old daughters, Ruby and Sam, in Julynne’s care. The piece now suddenly shifts its stakes from the petty wives’ tale to reveal Benny’s burgeoning social conscience as he decides to follow a busload of Freedom Riders on their Jim Crow-challenging mission throughout the South. As Benny describes the horrific treatment greeting the Riders, including his arrest, he sings of his pride in how his newfound purpose has helped him become a man who will make his daughters proud.
Elegantly directed by Jack Cummings III, the stocky Cunningham tells his tale with a dancer’s grace, each gesture perfectly timed to Ted Shen’s jazz-inflected music. His beautifully expressive voice, matched by deeply rooted acting, seamlessly weaves music and speech together.
However, even with melodies that capture each emotional shift, the score only rarely resembles songs with lyrics rather than prose speeches set to music. Narrative tension thus dissipates as the stylishly artistic music struggles to prevent lassitude from seeping in.
Act two, “Ruby,” is more emotionally compelling; it’s also more dramatically flaccid. The eponymous Ruby (Fulton), one of Benny’s girls, is visiting the twin grave where lies her long-dead father, alongside the recently deceased Julynne. (I guess this means that Bertha was buried next to Greene Cotton.)
Speaking to Julynne, who adopted the twins when their father died, Ruby recalls her childhood as a black kid in a mostly white school, her more ambitious sister, how she identified with It’s a Wonderful Life, and the early pregnancy that trapped her in Broadbend while Sam departed for good. She recalls Julynne’s description of Benny’s death in 1961, an event mirrored in her innocent teenage son’s having being beaten by racist cops, a situation dramatized in many recent films and TV shows. A fantasy visit from Benny gives the grieving Ruby the courage to endure.
Little more than a barebones Black Lives Matter situation, “Ruby” is an elegiac tone poem given exquisitely emotive life by Fulton within the cocoon of Shen’s lyrical music, which varies little from what he offers in act one. Plotless, the act barely qualifies as drama, depending mainly on feelings for its existence.
Significant as they are, the themes of Broadbend, Arkansas are too familiar not to require a more memorable narrative. And, lacking a strong dramatic text, Shen’s music maintains interest only to a point. More than anything else, it’s Cunningham and Fulton’s performances that keep this hour and 40-minute show from going any further south.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Broadbend, Arkansas The Duke on 42nd St. 229 W. 42nd St., NYC Through November 23