On Saturday October 26th, OCCC’s Bruce Owen Theatre welcomed “Badu-izms – A Tribute to Erykah” for two performances only, at 3pm and 7pm. I caught the 3pm show, and left the theatre lamenting that the musical celebration wasn’t going to be around longer.
The show opened with a taste of the Vine Open Mic Poetry night, and the spoken word artists on deck did not disappoint in the least. First up to the mic was Shana Prince, who delivered a rapid-fire piece about America’s history and current condition that challenged our social consciousness. She kept cool as a cucumber and continued to drop knowledge undaunted through technical difficulties, exhibiting the poise of a veteran on stage and displaying a skill and confidence that would make anyone desire to have her as the first hitter to the plate.
Also of note was a poem titled “85, 10 and 5” involving audience participation and systematically outlining Ms. Badu’s belief system as an adherent to the philosophies of the Five Percent Nation. Particularly amusing and endearing was the self described “messenger’s” vehement disclaimer that the beliefs espoused in the poem were not her own. Indeed, this spoken word set the stage for the odyssey that we would experience shortly.
But first there would be one more poet.
A large, imposing figure emerged from behind the curtain. He confidently informed us that his name was James Cooper, but we could call him “Coop.” His swag was unmistakable. Coop then made a declaration which stood out like a sore thumb, given the humility of the artists who preceded him. He gave a three word self-assessment of his own giftedness that caught some completely off guard…
“I’m a wordsmith.”
Here was the dilemma, and maybe it was just me: I’m aware of the word and it’s meaning, but I’ve most often heard it used as a compliment given to someone else. This was my first time hearing someone issue the compliment to himself. On stage, no less. He did not laugh it off, blink, shuffle or sway. He stood flat footed and called himself a wordsmith. Then he appeared to take it in for a brief moment, as if to say to himself, “thank you very much.” Then Coop began his delivery, an animated, flawless, graphically descriptive poetic tale about meeting the devil, detailing the evils and misfortunes that many of us as African Americans voluntarily bring upon ourselves. He was not the least bit nervous, nor did he seem to have any chip on his shoulder. He was quite engaging, peppering his delivery with narrative body language, hand signs and facial expressions that erased any doubt, if there was any – and there was none – of what he meant.
I stand corrected. There is absolutely nothing wrong with complimenting yourself if you know who you are and can back it up. Coop wasn’t boasting. He was merely stating a fact. Coop knew who he was – a wordsmith of the highest order. He simply let the rest of us know who he was, then gave his own successful advance cross examination of any potential claims to the contrary. Then he rested his case. The verdict: I could do nothing but concur that James Cooper, also known as Coop, is indeed a wordsmith.
And with that, the stage was set for the main event.
Badu-izms was a musical journey through the struggles of ghetto life, ghetto love and ghetto mentality from which Ms. Badu emerged and evolved through the course of her trip. And what a trip it was. It began with a singing silhouette of the first Badu (Kizzie Ledbetter) giving a smooth, surreal rendition of “Afro” before being summoned off stage by a stern, matronly voice to which she quickly and fearfully responds.
There would be more Badu incarnations, each bringing her own signature style to the delivery of her assigned Badu-izm, and each doing so with great aplomb. Kizzie had just taken her turn, but she would be up next as well, this time out from behind the makeshift sheer partition that concealed all but her shadow, to render “On and On.” I could indeed go on and on about Kizzie’s jazzy interpretation of this Badu standard that made all of our heads nod in unanimous rhythmic agreement. Suffice it to say it was excellently delivered, as was her demure “Orange Moon.”
Next up was Badu number two, the soulful Patrice Furman, playing the role of a jilted, scorned lover in denial as she belted out a stirring treatment of “I Don’t Want Him.” Patrice’s strong, confident vocals overcame technical sound difficulties beyond her control, letting us know that not only did she not need “him” (Professa Tesdale), but she really didn’t need a microphone either, even with three vocally strong Badu-ettes belting away in the background.
Giving us another totally unique embodiment of Erykah was Brandi Hamilton, whose bold rendition of “Other Side of the Game” gripped the audience and commanded our attention. Brandi brought a youthful innocence to her turn as the heroine, causing us to empathize with her struggle to hold on to love, even if it isn’t really love at all.
Providing a spectacular visual being escorted by orderlies onto the stage in a straight jacket, yet another Badu (Nita Fruit – pronounced Froo-ee) sits and appears defeated and spaced out, as would be expected of someone in Ms. Badu’s currently portrayed predicament. What is not expected is for someone in such a get-up to let out a beautifully controlled and powerful “Out My Mind, Just In Time”, as Ms. Fruit does with ease. She portrays the perfect “recovering undercover over lover” and delivers the goods vocally in a manner that is clearly her own. Fruit and Ledbetter came together at one point for “Green Eyes” and blended their styles in a way that made us hungry to hear more of them both. In fact, if one could have asked for one thing to be different about Badu-izms, perhaps it would have been to have just a little more of Nita Fruit’s voice in the show.
Adding equal parts dramatic despair and comic relief, Soul Secure provides a commanding presence on stage for both Tyrone – arguably Ms. Badu’s signature song, and Bag Lady, where she teams with Ledbetter for a surreal sequence in which she faces an improved version of herself – sans baggage – before finally emerging transformed, whole, free and fabulous.
The ladies combine on stage at different times, and are perhaps at their best together as an ensemble, although they are all superbly strong as individual vocalists. Or as Coop might call them, songsmiths. Everyone has a signature sound and a unique presence on stage, providing an anticipation for what each Badu is going to do. Fortunately there were no Erykah Ba-don’ts in this stellar cast of leading ladies who all willingly and graciously played supporting roles during each other’s turns in the spotlight, not only dramatically, but musically as well. The chemistry on stage was undeniable.
Providing dramatic and comedic relief as needed throughout the story are the men. The hilarious Professa Tesdale and the versatile Josiah Eking form a one-two punch which makes the Badu-izms work by providing the necessary antagonists. Candace Liger, a Jill of all trades, acts, dances and does whatever is needed with as little or as much fanfare as is required. Yolanda Carrasquillo provides essential interpretive dance movements throughout, without which the story could not be told as comfortably. Director Grace Franklin brings it all together, making Badu-izms a very well spent Saturday afternoon of musical theatre with an extra dose of soul.
Erykah would be proud.
Brian C. Scott