Sometimes, when given an assignment by my editor, the path to the finished piece does not seem immediately clear. “Find an angle,” she said. But I saw only the blankness of my computer screen. How could I connect Abyssinia — a musical about a young black woman in Oklahoma at the turn of the last century — to what we do here? To writing about Dallas? To the brick and mortar that holds us down, giving us roots into our city?
I decided to start with the Majestic Theatre where Lyric Stage’s Abyssinia performs next month. The Majestic shines as a grand specimen of Dallas brick-and-mortar. But, as it goes, history is often a bit less shiny and grand when you rub away at the patina left behind by the years. The Majestic Theatre is no exception.
Built in 1921 on Theater Row in downtown Dallas, it was, like most theaters of the Jim Crow South, strictly whites-only. When Cab Calloway performed at the Majestic in 1934, he played midnight showings to whites-only audiences. In 1955, when black theater-goers remained segregated to the upper balconies, the NAACP held demonstrations to challenge the ongoing segregation.
The Legacy of Juanita J. Craft
Civil rights hero Juanita J. Craft, Dallas’ NAACP youth organizer at the time, led the picketing against the Majestic Theatre. You can read about it in her own words here.
If you’re unfamiliar with Craft, well, she was a force. Among her innumerable achievements, Craft was elected to Dallas City Council where she labored to improve the lives of not only black, but Hispanic and Native American Dallasites. Craft passed away in 1995, but the home she occupied for over 50 years (another iconic piece of Dallas brick-and-mortar) continues to live on in significance. In October 2019, the 1,300-square-foot home received a $500,000 federal grant, to complete the preservation of the home as a museum: The Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights House.
Craft’s historic fight to gain universal access to educational and cultural institutions like the Majestic Theatre succeeded in breaking down long-held racial barriers. As a result, today, powerful pieces like Abyssinia grace the stage of the Majestic.
Lyric Stage’s Abyssinia ‘Spectacular’
Lyric Stage Founder Steven Jones called the unpublished, rarely-produced play, “spectacular.” From Lyric Stage’s website,
Abyssinia Jackson is born during a tornado in Stillwater, Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century. Blessed with a gift of song and a voice that delights the entire community, Abby is brought up in the bosom of the church and under the watchful eye of Mother Vera, a folk-healer. Like Job, Abby is fated to undergo a series of trials. Consequently, Abby’s faith in both man and God is destroyed and she vows never to sing again. Mother Vera takes the girl under her wing to teach her the ways of a healer. In learning to relieve pain in others, Abyssinia begins to heal herself. At the play’s conclusion, Abyssinia finds her voice again and rejoins the community.
Abyssinia: Triumph Over Trauma
I was honored to speak with Abyssinia director Akin Babatunde and acclaimed vocalist and actress Carol Dennis, who is reprising her role as ‘Mother Vera.’ We spoke about the play, its message, and its place in modern-day America.
Babatunde summed up the play in four words: trauma, tragedy, triumph, and transformation.
“The message is a very simple one,” he said. “When any trauma happens to us, we play the same tape over and over. We live out that trauma in various ways for the rest of our lives if we don’t address it. But if you have the courage to deal with it, tragedy gives way to triumph, and you’re able to undergo a transformation.”
Babatunde finds the process very familiar. “We — the African American community — have certainly dealt with this, right up to the present day. We still triumph. We still transform.”
The ‘Human Walk’
Dennis described Abyssinia as a cocoon. Or perhaps, a snow globe, allowing the audience to peer in on what she called “the internal cultural dynamic of a warm and wonderful community of African American sharecroppers.” She called Abyssinia “a beautiful piece of theater is an example that the same struggles happen in every culture.”
“The human walk is the human walk,” she said. “And in the end, we need love to heal humanity.”
Hope. Love. Faith. Dennis came back to those words time and again during our conversation.
“Faith, healing, and family,” she said, remain the show’s focus. Dennis plays a healer, but actress and character reveal themselves as deeply intertwined in the way she talks about her own life and her commitment to making a difference.
“There is joy in pain relieved,” she said. “We must help each other to lighten the human experience.”
Celebrating the African American Legacy
February is Black History Month. And when asked if the timing of the production was meant to coincide with Black History Month, Babatunde said he couldn’t be sure.
“But it’s great that it is,” he said. “This kind of legacy, our legacy, should always be celebrated. We are woven into the fabric of American life.”
Coincidence or not, I can’t help but feel that celebrating Abyssinia and activists like Juanita Craft who made its run at the Majestic Theatre possible, is one small but beautiful way to honor the contributions of Black Americans. I hope you will join me.
If You Go:
February 14 – 16 at the Majestic Theater in Downtown Dallas
For tickets and more information, click here.