"Miss Truth," Glory Van Scott's play inspired by the life of Sojourner Truth, runs tonight through Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Matinees are 3 o'clock Saturday and 2 o'clock Sunday. Performance times were listed incorrectly in yesterday's editions.
MISS TRUTH, a musical with book, music and lyrics by Glory Van Scott; musical concept by Louis Johnson and Glory Van Scott; directed and choreographed by Louis Johnson; music directed and arranged by Thom Bridwell; costumes by Alice E. Carter and Judy Dearing; settings and lights by Ron Truitt.
With Glory Van Scott, Wayne Davis, Loretta Abbott, Phoebe Redmond, Lloyd McNeill, Mabel Robinson, Charles Williams, Pat Lundy, Jey Mon'Treal, Loretta Devine and Billy Newton-Davis.
When New York State outlawed slavery in 1827, Isabella Baumfree's master failed to get the message.
He was going to hang onto his slaves, by gum. And apparently no one in a position of authority was about to stop him, because Baumfree, who wanted the freedom the law had promised her, had to run away -- and abandon her children -- to get it.
Later, when her son was illegally sold to an Alabama slaveowner, she went to court and, remarkably, won him back.
In 1843 the tall, deep-voiced Baumfree left her maid's job in New York City to go on the abolitionist lecture circuit. The Lord had spoken to her, she told audiences across the land. He had instructed her to adopt the name Sojourner Truth and to preach the causes of emancipation, women's rights, temperance and prison reform.
Abe Lincoln thought highly enough of this semi-mystical proselytizer to call her to the White House in 1864 and ask her to work with freedmen in the nation's capital -- an injunction she follwed until her death in 1883.
Here is a biography charged with conflict and drama. But not even the bare facts of that story, to say nothing of its theatrical possibilities, have been incorporated into "Miss Truth," a "poetic suite with music and dance" that opened over the weekend at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater and will continue Thursday through Saturday.
What actress-writer Glory Van Scott has given us instead is a singing, dancing revue with fleeting, intermittent references to the woman whose life ostensibly inspired it. It opens in a disco parlor and closes with an actor singing, splendidly, the hymn "Lift Every Voice." In between are musical numbers with titles like "I Sing the Rainbow" and "Do Your Thing, Miss Truth," and a bare minimum of lyrics beyond the titles themselves.
Besides having contributed the book, music and lyrics, Van Scott has the starring role as Miss Truth. She delivers a series of grim-faced sermons to alternately friendly and unfriendly audiences, all unseen. The only dialogue is between her and a chorus of young present-day admirers.
"When freedom comes from your heart, it's 100 percent!" Miss Truth proclaims urgently at one point. "When freedom comes from your mind, it's 100 percent! But when freedom sings from your soul, my God, it's 101 percent!"
"One hundred and what percent?" asks a member of the entourage.
"One hundred and one percent, child," she repeats.
"Solid, solid," says the child.
Louis Johnson's action-packed choreography, performed by some able dancers, is a welcome bit of punctuation, and the company abounds with talented singers. But the music, a juicy blend of disco and gospel, never really connects with the text.
Midway through the second act, Van Scott leaves the stage to walk among her patrons, patting their heads and clasping their hands. At the performance I attended, several people ducked or cringed, but all such evasive maneuvers were in vain.
So whatever else one can say about "Miss Truth," there is no denying that the audience is touched by it.