The Jamal Lullabies
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 8, 2009
I love the idea underlying Emily Conbere's inventive musical The Jamal Lullabies. Mostly sung-through, it consists of four young women collectively telling us a story in monologues, songs, and a cappella pieces, solo and in rich harmony. The musical styles are varied and interesting, and the accompaniment (on guitar) is lovely. The four women who sing/perform the show are Nicole Stefonek, Kristina Teschner, Bekah Coulter, and Debbie Friedman, and the music they make is often memorable.
The Jamal Lullabies is about Jamal Slims Hall, described in the program and the show as "a beloved gang member, a soft-spoken lover, and a beautiful tired-out addict." Jamal, we learn, was boyfriend to all four of these women when they were in high school together. They did not find out about the other three, however, until a party where Jamal was shot and killed in a drug-related incident. It is now five years later, and these four "Jamal Girls" are gathered for a memorial tribute to a young man they loved and lost.
The trouble is, during the 50 minutes or so of The Jamal Lullabies, we don't learn nearly enough about Jamal or these four women to satisfy our curiosity about them. In places we peer down some tantalizing alleyways: What did the pastor's daughter see in rough-hewn Jamal? What did Jamal feel when he couldn't get a job, a victim of ingrained racist attitudes? Why did Jamal invite all four of his "girls" to the party that would be his last stand? Conbere touches on hot-button topics related to our attitudes toward race, sex, and sexuality. But in the end, I didn't feel that I had discovered anything particular or specific enough about Jamal or the themes his story presents.
Director Paul Bargetto does an admirable job keeping the show brisk and quick and diverse. I was a little unclear about exactly where the "Jamal Girls" are and what their relationship to the audience is supposed to be (i.e., are we with them at a memorial service, or are we simply observing them through the fourth wall?) A couple of times Bargetto moves the women downstage almost to the front row of the audience and I was uncertain where the women were actually "going" in those moments.
Vocal coach Allison Jill Posner (herself a one-time "Jamal Girl" during an earlier incarnation of the piece) achieves very satisfactory results. In the end, what I liked best about The Jamal Lullabies was definitely the singing. I'd love to see Conbere and Bargetto apply this fascinating theatrical form they've created to tell a richer, fuller tale than this one.