Allan Harris’s new musical, Cross That River, sheds new light on the old story of the Wild West.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
This isn’t your average pop-culture rendition, in which John Wayne and the Marlboro Man fight off Native Americans in the pursuit of the self-sufficient American way. But it’s also not an in-your-face rebuttal of those days; instead, it’s a gentle (perhaps too gentle) reminder—ranging songs from country to gospel—that there were other American heroes in that day.
In this case, the hero is Blue (Davis ), a Louisiana slave turned Texas cowboy. Encouraged by his surrogate mother, he flees the plantation and its stereotypically grim abuses (scenes that seem ripped right out of American History textbooks). Predictability doesn’t make it any easier to watch , nor do comic preachers, like Dat der Preacher (Tony Perry, who alternates well between high minded religiosity and outright lecher y). Effective performers—like Soara Joye Ross, who plays Blue’s surrogate mother—get us where it hurts, and her weary eyes and pursed lips sum up the pain of slavery far more than mere words on a page.
Like the basic plot, the songs are a bit stretched, too, milking that river-crossing metaphor for all its worth. (Yes, we get it; it’s the line between slavery and freedom.) However, the quick changes in musical styles, the molasses sweet accents, terrific dancing, and Davis’s rich baritone keep the first act lively. Harris also uses the space well: though the musicians take up most of the small stage, Harris’s narration (as the grown-up Blue) makes it seem more expansive.
Fewer tricks are needed once the story concentrates on Blue’s post-escape life. His childhood skill with horses helps him sign on at the Circle T Ranch of Old Sam Eye (an appropriately tough but loving Timothy Warmen), where, in exchange for food and shelter, he becomes an accomplished cowboy. Blue’s observations and songs about free life are fascinating. For instance, he talks about the irony of chasing and fighting Native Americans, when he too, not so long ago, was once considered just as second-class. Blue’s adult self’s interactions with his younger self (conveniently staged with the adult Blue as narrator) also add a touch of humor. When it’s finally time to ask for a salary for all of the tough physical labor, he glares at pushes his younger self (a sweet yet sly Brandon Gill ) towards his employer.
Rounding out the plot is the inevitable love interest. Annie Hutchinson (Wendy Lynette Fox), an orphan whom Blue meets while he’s cowboy-ing, is taking refuge from her job as a barmaid/whore. Hutchinson answered a personal ad that, following her parent’s death, that took her to a husband in Abilene Texas. She seeks freedom in the west, but women sadly, had more opportunities as barmaids and prostitutes than they did as cowgirls. Where Blue was able to escape slavery through his new life in the Wild West, Hutchinson comes all the way from Philadelphia to Texas, only to bondage in marriage.
Fox hints at this conflict, but the play could have been stronger if the irony was more explicitly mentioned . A few songs could be cut, too expository to be enjoyable, and maybe more exploration of the differences in opportunities for Annie and Blue as Blacks in the Wild West. Overall though, energetic cast, fun songs, and a new window into oft-explored period of American history.
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