I didn't know much about Marian Anderson, the pioneering contralto who died just eight years ago at the age of 96, when PBS' News Hour With Jim Lehrer did a short segment several years ago commemorating the 100th anniversary of her birth. I vaguely recall learning more in that 10 minutes about the singer who was first in line to so many institutions, simply because of the color of her skin, than in the 80 minutes of Dallas Children's Theater's current biographical introduction My Lord, What a Morning. It's unfair to compare two different media with vastly divergent target audiences, of course, but let me make a point. In terms of providing even the bare bones of Anderson's life and accomplishments, playwright Kim Hines and DCT skimp on some of the details that would ensure we understand how inspiring the woman was rather than taking it on faith. Under the direction of DCT staffer Artie Olaisen, My Lord, What a Morning is vastly more professional than one of those outreach shows that tour grade and junior high schools. But it is every bit as dryly didactic, as hoarily instructive as said public-school productions, the ones that get kids excited about leaving class, only to discover they're getting more of the same inside an auditorium.
I'm not sure that Hines wanted to do anything more than this, but really, Anderson (played as a young woman by Yolonda Williams, and in an older incarnation by Liz Mikel) suffers from such a simplistic presentation. Most of the obituary watermarks that started in the 1920s are reached onstage--first black woman to play New York's Town Hall, first black American to pack Europe's most important recital halls, and still responsible for highest turnout (75,000) for a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, staged after Daughters of the American Revolution refused her a gig at Constitution Hall. My Lord, What a Morning ends as if this was the apex of her career, when in fact, Anderson returned to the stage 16 years later as the first black woman at The Met and the oldest singer to play Ulrica in Verdi's Masked Ball. Preadolescent opera fans probably make up a tiny sliver of Dallas Children's Theater's regular audience, a "no, duh" statement that also leads me to another point: How appropriate is the life story of a woman known for her worldwide interpretations of art songs, arias, and spirituals for children? When you skip over the Verdi stuff and some of the interesting controversies late in her life--namely, that a few Afrocentric scholars dismissed her achievements because she worked so hard to master European classical forms for lily-white audiences, and because she always refused (as Hines' script does show) to take an activist tone against the barriers she broke--you denude a fascinating artist in the name of using her for children's edification. The inarguable lessons are repeated: Follow your dreams, don't let adversaries stop you, get back up as soon as you fall. But without the texture of Anderson's artistry (too brief snippets of her grand, solemn voice are sprinkled here and there between the action), she gets lost in a hazy bonfire of trailblazers.
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There are some simpler narrative problems with My Lord, What a Morning. Namely, that Williams as Marian the Young interacts in flashbacks (or is that flashforwards?) with Mikel as Marian the Old throughout the show. Olaisen seems to have nudged Mikel to look perpetually surprised and impatient at the decisions her character made as an impetuous young singer, in whose role Williams shines the brightest of anyone here. This makes absolutely no sense and inadvertently causes Mikel to appear senile before Anderson has hit 60. Speaking of Liz, she possesses one of Dallas' truly knockout blues-gospel voices but doesn't sing a note herself till the show's final moments, and then issues a rigid impression of the contralto singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" that sounds like a Kate Smith 45 played on 78. Accordingly, My Lord, What a Morning spends altogether too much time slowing down a classical artist's life so the kids can "catch up."