Welcome Home, Marian Anderson
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 15, 2008
Vanessa Shaw's new play with music Welcome Home, Marian Anderson is clearly a labor of love. Shaw wrote and stars in this tribute to the great African American singer; she's written herself a role that's akin to running a marathon, keeping her on stage for almost all of the show's two-and-a-half-hour running time and requiring her to sing about two dozen songs in a variety of styles.
Her subject is certainly a worthy one. Though Anderson died just 15 years ago (at the age of 96!), I confess that I know very little about her, and I suspect that's true of most theatre-goers my age and younger. The thing I did know about Marian Anderson is that she sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the D.A.R. refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall because of her race. This incident is the framing device of Shaw's play, which begins with Marian about to perform at that famous outdoor concert and concludes with her stepping onto that stage triumphantly.
In between, in flashbacks that aren't always chornologically arranged, events of the prior 20 years of Anderson's life are depicted. A great deal of attention is given to her final concert in Berlin in 1935, when the Nazis refused to allow her to sing (again, on the basis of her race); in a scene that is alas not quite so dramatically compelling as Shaw wishes, we see Anderson forced to sing to a Storm Trooper in order to retreive her passport and cross the border into Switzerland.
Nazi prejudice notwithstanding, one of the clear themes of Welcome Home, Marian Anderson is expressed in the show's title (which is meant ironically), namely that an African American artist was most unwelcome in most of the United States during the first half of the 20th century, even after she's been celebrated as one of the great musical talents of her generation, toasted by no less a personage as the conductor Toscanini as possessing a voice heard once in a hundred years.
Shaw's script deals forthrightly with this subject, and sprinkles in some more personal biographical information here and there along with a fairly vivid account of her relationship with her Finnish accompanist, Kosti Vehanen. What's missing from the play, though, is the real back story: Marian's rise from her Philadelphia neighborhood to the concert halls of Europe is mostly glossed over, and her early American triumphs, documented here, are entirely omitted. I hoped to gain a sense of how Anderson reconciled the classical repertoire she dominated with the spirituals and church music of her childhood: what did the Europeans who adored her make of that combination? More importantly, I hoped to get a sense of Anderson's place in the pantheon of music, but Shaw's focus is more on the political issues surrounding her art rather than the art itself.
Mark Edward Lang, who plays at least a dozen different roles in the piece, is excellent, especially as Kosti, whose secret homosexual existence informs his character as soon as we meet him. Ivan Thomas completes the cast, serving principally as accompanist (which he does superbly) and occasionally as actor; for example, his brief appearance as Paul Robeson, for example, conveys the larger-than-life grandeur of that gentleman most satisfactorily.
Shaw, of course, has set herself the impossible task of conjuring the spirit and voice of a legendary figure; she's at her best performing pieces outside the classical canon (especially, with Lang, an utterly delightful "Scandalize My Name"); the strain on her voice in performing so much in a single evening tells on her in the operatic arias. Shaw's admiration for Anderson is never in doubt, but neither as an actor nor as a writer does she really get under Anderson's skin in this show.