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Lost in the Stars

Lost in the Stars a play based on the novel, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton presented by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh in collaboration with the Virginia Arts Festival February 2008 Music by Kurt Weill Book and Lyrics by Maxwel Anderson Jonathan Eaton, Director Julius Rudel, Conductor Review Copyright Deesha Philyaw, 2008

Opera Theater of Pittsburgh recently presented a first-rate production of Lost in the Stars, a story about family, loss, faith, and redemption. In LITS, we follow the journey of Stephen Kumalo (Herbert Perry), a black Anglican priest who, at the urging of his wife (Linda Haston), leaves their home in Ndotsheni, a rural village in the province of Natal in South Africa, to search for their son, Absalom (Eugene Perry). Absalom had gone to Johannesburg a year earlier to work in the mines, but after a few letters, he stopped writing home. A letter from Stephen's brother John in Johannesburg, about their wayward sister, Grace, doubly convinces Stephen that he really needs to head to the city.

Once in Shantytown, in Johannesburg, Stephen learns that Absalom, newly on parole, has impregnated his girlfriend. From this point, the story, like Absalom's life, proceeds upon a downward spiral. During a robbery, Absalom accidentally shoots and kills, Arthur Jarvis, a white man who fights for racial justice--and who is the son of Stephen's neighbor, James Jarvis. The murder fans the flames of racial unrest in the city, as Absalom and his accomplices go on trial.

From there, the story focuses on the fathers, Stephen and James, whose fates have been linked by tragedy. Both men have lost their sons, but they must nevertheless look to the future--their futures, and that of the village they call home.

The straightforward dialogues and monologues of Lost in the Stars are complimented by flawless vocal performances presented in a traditional operatic style, as well as songs rooted in the traditions of the blues and Negro spirituals. Notable solos were delivered by the Leader (Larry J. Giddens, Jr.), White Woman (Kate Ambrose Sereno), and Irina, Absalom's girlfriend (Dzidzofe Avouglan).

The cast represents a wide-range of experience, from local singers making their theatric debuts to internationally-acclaimed artists like Herbert Perry (Stephen). The play's ensemble features nearly 50 performers seated on rows of benches extending beyond the main stage, on the left and right sides of the theater. In this fashion, and on the main stage, the ensemble evolves throughout the production, alternating between chorus, congregation, barricaded mob, and jury.

The costume design was effective, subtle, and did not draw attention to itself, which was precisely right for a production such as this. The sparse set design mirrored the costuming, with its muted creams and tans and simple, versatile structures made of what appeared to be polished balsawood. In every scene, small lights, representing the titular stars, hung by cords from the ceiling--sometimes a single glowing orb, sometimes clusters of them--in synchronicity with the action on stage.

In one scene, a noose takes center stage. The noose is making a contemporary "revival" in the American consciousness, and not surprisingly, the appearance of the noose, amidst the ubiquitous stars, appeared to have a chilling effect on the audience.

The events dramatized in LITS take place against the backdrop of social structures that are precursors to what will later become apartheid. But LITS is a decidedly less-politicized adaptation of Alan Paton's social protest novel, Cry the Beloved Country. Without much in the way of overt political overtones--from a few lines of dialogue we glimpse that John Kumalo is an activist, but he comes across as more of a mercenary (and possibly atheist) than anything--Lost in the Stars becomes a somber and sobering meditation on how, regardless of the macro-level political, social, and economic systems we live under, our micro-reality, neighbor to neighbor, heart to heart, matters greatly.

After its Pittsburgh premier, this production of Lost in the Stars will travel south in April to participate in the 2008 Virginia Arts Festival at the historic Attucks Theatre in Norfolk.

Developed by Francis Doody

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