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Lary Litt

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?"

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?"
By Michael Monasterial
Directed by Esther Taylor-Evans
Choreography by Abby Lappen
Produced by Passing the Torch Through the Arts
Woodstock Community Theater
Rock City Road, Woodstock
Reviewed July 24, 2010 by Larry Litt

If you think race relations in America have changed for the better, think again. The Tea Party, FOX News, prison populations and Arizona's new draconian immigration laws are proofs there's a still long way to go. Yes we have an African-American President, but by most people's standards he's more Ivy League white lawyer than black soul brother.

What would Sam Cooke, the greatest American crossover rock and roll singer, think about our world? Perhaps the answer lies in a review by Michael Monasterial, "Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" now playing at the Woodstock Community Theater. Monasterial's musical uses karaoke techniques to get the music right along with actual singing by the multi-talented cast.

Since Sam Cooke's music covers both gospel and popular genres the cast had to tell his life story in two worlds. Sabrina Kershaw as Cooke's boyhood girlfriend, then second wife, then ex-wife then urban prostitute goes from innocence to calculated crass cunning in a range rarely seen in a musical. Her vocals, dance moves and fast lipped character changes make her a mini-one woman show in this production.

Evelyn Clarke tells Cooke's story through the eyes of his loving but skeptical and religious grandmother. Her warnings set the stage for the biography of artistic struggle, greatness and eventual personal defeat. She could be Elvis Presley's Maw-Maw, or Crazy Heart or The Wrestler. It's a familiar warning, "Artist Beware, Family and Art aren't Natural Lovers. It takes something more to hold your Family together." Ms Clarke is gentle, singing gospel, firm in family, adding humanity and wisdom to the show.

The spiritual gospel world of Sam Cooke is embodied in Dennis Washington. Mr Washington's commanding singing voice casts a spell of divine goodness when Cooke is surrounded by deceit and self-destruction. For all Cooke's desires to overcome the racial barriers of the 1950s and 60s, he couldn't overcome the challenge that fame and fortune bring to many talented artists. Giving in to temptations of the flesh inevitably lead to destruction of the center of family life. Monasterial's use of gospel music as a counterpoint offers us transformational moments. We enter the church, needing simplicity, honesty and guidance after all the media celebrity. This spiritual leitmotif had the audience clapping hands and singing along with charismatic the Mr. Washington. Artist's father figures are always a problem in dramas. From The Jazz Singer onwards, fathers have wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps. Stephen M. Jones creates Cooke's father as a stubborn, willful church man who passes on his personality and love of music. Sam is meant for the big time. Papa sees the end as does everyone. Can a father prevent disaster? Can anyone? Jones also slyly plays Barry Gordy of Motown Records fame as an insidious, dominating gangster in a meeting that would predestine the rest of Cooke's story. I was riveted in this moment of intense machismo from both Monasterial as Cooke and Jones. Sam Cooke is a difficult representation of American history. He walked the walk of civil rights, but lived the life of a fabulously successful rock and roller. Michael Monasterial brings him to life as a conflicted man with both chain gangs and dancing the twist in his heart. We're led to think perhaps Cooke would be alive today if he'd just played ball with Motown as so many others did.

But Monasterial knows better than that. Cooke couldn't take the time to look over his shoulder, figure out the consequences of his actions, decide what was better for him and his family. He was on his way to heights never achieved by a black singer in America. His story and martyrdom are America's civil rights tragedy. It's looks as if change came to America, but has it really?

With minimal sets and lighting, Esther Taylor-Evans created changes in sets and time with costumes and the cast's individual body language. She proves once again that a big budget isn't needed for a play to be satisfying. In the finale, Monasterial's Cooke sings and dances his way into the audiences heart, the place Sam Cooke will remain forever. This show is riveting though some of the biographical facts are played for dramatic effect. Monasterial is a playwright with a mission to educate America about race relations through music. It's worth learning the lesson.

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