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Theater Review: She Persisted

Becky Klose
Farmers Alley Theatre

Farmers Alley Theatre staged a production of the musical “She Persisted” in Kalamazoo's Bronson Park. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

The origins of the musical “She Persisted” can be traced to a children’s book of the same name by Chelsea Clinton. Before that, credit for the phrase goes to then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his comment regarding the actions of fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But politics isn’t the central focus of this one-hour musical, which is designed for families and children. Instead, this uplifting show challenges Naomi, a young African American fourth grader on a tour of a historical museum, to consider the lives of courageous women who preceded her.

Naomi is played with contagious curiosity by E.J. Taylor. Although she initially balks at writing the essay assigned by her teacher, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” Naomi embraces the opportunity to travel through time to meet a multi-racial list of American women who helped change the world.

Credit Becky Klose / Farmers Alley Theatre
Farmers Alley Theatre
The cast of She Persisted

Naomi’s guide is the daughter of Father and Mother Time, a resourceful, Puck-like character, portrayed by the energetic Karly-Paige.

At her journey’s outset, Naomi expresses questions about her essay assignment and potential life plans: How can I live up to the examples of heroines and role models before me? What if I make a mistake and fall short of perfection? Taylor, an adult actress playing Naomi, manages to make the reservations of a young girl understandable in the song “Perfect/Not” while also presenting a character who’s open to learning and growing through interactions with the women she meets along the way.

This number, as well the dozen or so songs that follow, in director Marissa Harrington’s appealing production, features an ensemble capable of executing vigorous choreography while sustaining strong vocal support. Credit here also goes to music director Monica Washington. In fact, the quality of the sound from the Bronson Park stage and the mix by sound designer Tony Mitchell, sound associate Carrie Phillips, and sound manager, Mike Siegel, help to make this show an excellent example of what outdoor theatre can and should be at a time when audience safety and comfort is a priority.

Kiara Durbin, as astronaut Sally Ride, delivers one of the show’s stronger numbers, “Isn’t it Cool?” This inspirational homage to young aspirations, backed by a chorus of female astronauts, helps sustain the production’s tempo and maintains a high trajectory long after liftoff. Savannah Draper’s costumes add to visual appeal of this and other songs.

Alyssa Zamora’s Sonia Sotomayor, in a lively duet dance with Taylor, adds a welcome word of advice for any young female making career choices. Zamora, as Sotomayor, credits flexibility with allowing her a career path which led to her confirmation as an associate Supreme Court justice.

A key example of persistence is presented by Florence Griffith Joyner, played by Khadijah Brown, whose powerful slow-motion modeling of Joyner’s racing efforts in the song “Run My Race,” helped demonstrate the steady determination required for her record-setting accomplishments in track and field.

Other standout songs include “Hope”, also by Khadijah Brown, as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, in a moving tribute to Tubman’s efforts to rescue slaves in the nineteenth century.

The story of a courageous walk by six-year-old Ruby Bridges, an African American schoolgirl, is vividly portrayed by Chloe Marie Davis. Bridges braved an angry mob to enter an all-white school in 1960. Her story helps young Naomi overcome her fears and dare to dream about change in the world. The number, “Walk On”, delivered by Davis and Taylor, provides a memorable ending to Naomi’s journey through time. The song’s reprise also underscores the bravery required for Naomi’s journey through life.

The positive lessons demonstrated by the female heroes and role models on display in this production are aimed primarily at young women. But many will find these lessons applicable to audience members of all ages.

The final two performances of “She Persisted” are on Saturday, June 26, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the Celery Flats Amphitheatre in Portage.