There’s a lot riding on Penumbra Theatre’s world premiere of the coming-of-age musical “Girl Shakes Loose.”
For starters, it’s the first production under the sole leadership of Sarah Bellamy, who took over the 41-year-old troupe in January from her father, Lou, the company’s founder.
Bellamy has spent several years nurturing this show alongside a creative team made up entirely of women of color. She flew to New York twice to see workshop stagings. Penumbra has invested $50,000 in the musical’s development and the production itself will cost $300,000, a significant amount for a theater with a $1.9 million annual budget.
She likens “Girl Shakes Loose” to Beyoncé’s 2016 album/video/empowerment project “Lemonade.”
“When women of color have control over their artistic vision and how they want to see themselves reflected in the world, the results can be powerful,” Bellamy said. “What we get is a full celebration of our authentic lives, lived out loud.”
It’s in that spirit that “Girl Shakes Loose,” which begins preview performances Tuesday and opens Thursday night, marks a new chapter for one of the nation’s flagship African-American companies.
The “Girl” of the title, played by New York-based actor Alexis Sims, is a young woman who journeys from small-town Georgia to New York and San Francisco on a voyage of self-discovery.
“At the end of the day, she has to do the work of growing up,” said composer and lyricist Imani Uzuri. “It’s something most, if not all, of us have to do.”
Uzuri created the show with Zakiyyah Alexander, who wrote the book and also contributed lyrics, featuring the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, the 82-year-old literary lion who has won the prestigious Robert Frost Award and was a leader in the 1960s-’70s Black Arts Movement. Director May Adrales and choreographer Karen Charles complete the creative team.
The story partly resembles the arc of Uzuri’s life, but the composer — who recently earned a master’s degree in African-American studies from Columbia University — is quick to note that it is not an autobiography.
Called “a postmodern Bessie Smith” by the Village Voice, Uzuri grew up singing spirituals and hymns in rural North Carolina. She has a dedicated following as a jazz singer and composer, composed for Herbie Hancock and duetted with John Legend in a remake of the 1980s R&B hit “If This World Were Mine.” She also has teamed up for more experimental fare with conceptual artists Carrie Mae Weems and Sanford Biggers.
Uzuri’s score is virtually a history of black music in America, from jazz and blues to gospel, funk, house, hip-hop and rock. Pianist Sanford Moore will lead a four-piece band for Penumbra’s staging.
Aside from the unnamed lead character “Girl,” all the other roles are played by members of the show’s eight-person chorus, which features Jamecia Bennett, Thomasina Petrus, Kory Pullam, China Brickey, John Jamison, Lamar Jefferson, Valencia Proctor and Tatiana Williams.
It was important to playwright Alexander that the lead character not have a name. She doesn’t want audience members to make assumptions about Girl, but to view her instead as “a universal girl who happens to be black, and to watch her journey. If I name her ‘Tanisha,’ there’s already a separation that stops people from seeing themselves in her.”
Alexander, who has written for such TV shows as “Legacy: 24” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” wanted to bring to life a black female protagonist who resonated with her own middle-class background. She recalled a recent conversation with a white colleague about actor/rapper Donald Glover’s hip TV show “Atlanta.”
“He asked: ‘Would I be able to get it as a white man?’ And I said, ‘I’ve gotten every single show I’ve watched my entire life, and they’ve been almost all white characters.’ ”
A nourishing experience
Mindful of the strictures that they — and their characters — face while navigating the world, members of the creative team said they found it nourishing and liberating to work with one another.
“The musical theater world is one of the most exclusive and closed ecosystems you can imagine, and it’s dominated almost entirely by white men,” said Alexander.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, where she earned a master’s degree in playwriting, Alexander wanted the chance to tell stories in a theater discipline that can count few black women as creative partners.
“Just think of every one of your favorite theater musicals, except for ‘Hamilton.’ It’s a desert, in terms of stories, for anyone who isn’t white. And for people of color, most of those stories are about overcoming how difficult it is for us to be in the world. I wanted to tell a simple story whose take was not about if people of color will survive.”
Bellamy noted that the current political climate will affect how this show is perceived. “It feels exciting because of the moment we’re in as a nation,” she said. “We have to defend things that in the past seemed like a given, like: Every human being should be loved, and we should be free to be who we are. It’s a healing celebration of an authentic life.”
But she does not view “Girl Shakes Loose” as a protest work.
“By showing someone who is authentically who they are, it helps to create space in the culture for us to be ourselves — in all our complexity, messiness and brilliance.”