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Lab Theater of Florida mounts SWFL premiere production of “SISTAS: The Musical”

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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(From Left): Makayla Davis as Roberta, Simone Farrell as Gloria, Myrtle October as Simone and Julissa Jean-Bart as Tamika perform number in "SISTAS: The Musical," at Laboratory Theater of Florida

On WGCU’s podcast “Three Song Stories,” guests choose three songs that connect them to powerful memories, events and people in their lives. Each song serves as the springboard for a highly introspective and often emotional discussion of how the guest relates to the music and what was going on at the time that gives that song so much meaning years later.

This is the very premise underlying Dorothy Marcic’s Tony-nominated stage production “SISTAS: The Musical.” Laboratory Theater of Florida is mounting Southwest Florida’s premiere production of the show through Jan. 15.

SISTAS takes place in recently-departed Grandma Alice’s attic. There, sisters, Roberta, Gloria, and Simone, along with Simone’s 16-year-old daughter, Tamika, and their white sister-in-law, Heather, rummage through boxes of old papers, stacks of vinyl records, and racks of old clothes looking for an important document that Alice left for them. As they search, they also consider which song they’ll perform that evening at Alice’s memorial.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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(From Left): Roberta (Makayla Davis), Gloria (Simone Farrell) and Simone (Myrtle October) and their light-skinned sister-in-law Heather (Chelsea Fleeman).

While many of the songs were beloved by Grandma Alice, it quickly becomes clear that the music that denoted Grandma Alice’s 92 years on planet Earth also marked the milestones – both the joyous and the heartbreaking – of the sisters’ richly intertwined lives.

For example, while Auntie Roberta can’t abide the awful music that’s embraced by her niece’s TikTok generation, Tamika and the sisters playfully point out that 30’s blues singer Bessie Smith was the TikTok of her day. In fact, her standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” evinces that same lyrical theme of freedom of choice and steadfast refusal to conform to societal norms that’s made TikTok a social phenomenon.

There ain't nothing I can do or nothing I can say

That folks don't criticize me

But I'm going to do just as I want to anyway

And don't care if they all despise me

If I should take a notion

To jump into the ocean

'T ain't nobody's business if I do, do, do, do

If I go to church on Sunday

Sing the shimmy down on Monday

Ain't nobody's business if I do, if I do

If my friend ain't got no money

And I say,

"Take all mine honey

'T ain't nobody's bizness if I do, do, do, do

If I give him my last nickel

And it leaves me in a pickle

'T ain't nobody's bizness if I do, if I do

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Tamika (Julissa Jean-Bart) and her Aunt Roberta (Makayla Davis) share a moment during "SISTAS: The Musical."

Like many families around the country, faith plays an important role in defining who these women are and how they relate to the world at large. In this family, one sister’s lost her faith while another’s found Jesus again, leading to a spirited debate about religion’s ability to inspire people to treat each other better.
That’s a premise blues singer Billie Holiday flatly rejected in “God Bless the Child,” better known to Gen Z by the George Benson/Al Jarreau cover featuring Jill Scott.

Them that's got shall have

Them that's not shall lose

So the Bible said and it still is news

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Yes, the strong get smart

While the weak ones fade

Empty pockets don't ever make the grade

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Simone Farrell plays Gloria, the stern and modest widow who has a deeply-rooted faith in God.

In the pantheon of female African American singers, The Supremes didn’t just change the way America viewed Black music and the artists who made it. With 12 number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, they opened doors that enabled subsequent Black performers to finally emerge from the obscurity of the Chitlin’ Circuit and gain mainstream success.

On a personal level, The Supremes gave Grandma Alice and her granddaughters permission to express joy during the turbulent times of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and embrace their lifelong relationship with their hair.

Baby, baby

I'm aware of where you go

Each time you leave my door

I watch you walk down the street

Knowing your other love you'll meet

But this time before you run to her

Leaving me alone and hurt

(Think it over) After I've been good to you

(Think it over) After I've been sweet to you

Stop! In the name of love

Before you break my heart

Stop! In the name of love

Before you break my heart

Think it over

Think it over

Of course, sequester three single women and a boy-crazy 16-year-old in the close confines of an attic for a couple of hours and the topic of men is bound to come up.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Makayla Davis as Aunt Roberta sings while Chelsea Fleeman as Heather, Myrtle October as Simone and Simone Farrell as Gloria provide back-up vocals.

Not surprisingly, many of the songs in Grandma Alice’s vinyl collection chronicle the profound changes that have occurred over the last nine decades that have empowered Black women to define their self-worth independent of a man and insist that their man treat them with love and commitment, as Beyoncé underscores in her hit “Single Ladies.”

Up in the club, we just broke up

I'm doing my own little thing

Decided to dip and now you wanna trip

Cause another brother noticed me

I'm up on him, he up on me

Don't pay him any attention

Just cried my tears, for three good years

Ya can't be mad at me

Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it

Don't be mad once you see that he want it

If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it

Or, as Aretha Franklin put it:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Find out what it means to me

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Take care, TCB, oh

(Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)

A little respect

(Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)

Whoa, babe

(Just a little bit) a little respect

(Just a little bit) I get tired

(Just a little bit) keep on tryin'

(Just a little bit) you're runnin' out of fools

(Just a little bit) and I ain't lyin'

(Just a little bit)

The songs on Grandma Alice’s playlist lead these women to the inescapable conclusion that to attract the love they want, they must love themselves first and, as Mary J. Blige sings, be positive about life and how good it feels to feel good.

When I'm walking past the mirror

Don't stress through the night, at a time in my life

Ain't worried about if you feel it

Got my head on straight, I got my vibe right

I ain't gonna let you kill it

See I wouldn't change my life, my life's just fine

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, ooh!

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, ooh!

Just fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, ooh!

See I wouldn't change my life, my life's just fine

Feels so good

In all, this production includes 40 hit songs spanning nearly a century, and while their catalog includes some of the biggest hits from the baddest African American singer/songwriters in history, there are undoubtedly other songs that mark the high and low points of the lives of each audience member. From that perspective, “SISTAS: The Musical” invites each of us to do a little year-end holiday reflection, and like the women in “SISTAS,” perhaps your journey will also lead you to a greater appreciation of the role family plays in your life.

We are family

I got all my sisters with me

We are family

Get up everybody and sing

We are family

I got all my sisters with me

We are family

Get up everybody and sing

Everyone can see we're together

As we walk on by

(And) and we fly just like birds of a feather

I won't tell no lie

(All) all of the people around us they say

Can they be that close?

Just let me state for the record

We're giving love in a family dose

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

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