"Praise House," a new musical theater piece created and performed by an artist collective known as the Urban Bush Women, simply overflows. With songs. And dances. And cleverly constructed homemade instruments. And imaginative costumes of chiffon and patchwork and brilliantly patterned African fabrics. And ingenious, always-metamorphosing sets that represent backyards and churches and even heaven itself. And a company of wildly exuberant, meticulously rehearsed performers -- eight women, two men, plus a small female a cappella singing group -- who stomp, swirl, declaim, shout, chant, wail and shimmy so committedly that at times you feel as if the Terrace Theater roof might blow off.
For all of this bounty, "Praise House," which runs through tomorrow, is desperately deficient in one crucial area: plot. Inspired "by many visionary artists, but particularly by the life, words, visual imagery and paintings of Minnie Evans," the piece focuses on a young girl named Hannah (Viola Sheely) who has been born "with the gift of sight."
This gift -- she sees angels, colors, flashes of light -- proves a great burden as well as a joy; Hannah's worn-out mother (Theresa Cousar) constantly berates her for her shiftlessness and oddball behavior, and she is made to feel an outcast by the members of the matriarchal society in which she dwells (the two male cast members serve as troubadour-seer types, offering songs and stories that comment on the action). Only her Granny (April Greene), a round, loquacious lady forever spouting down-home pearls of wisdom, recognizes Hannah's gift. Eventually Hannah herself comes to realize that the magical images only she is privy to must be put down on paper. "Draw or die!" she says as the lights go down on Act 2. She has become an artist.
Because Hannah's visions are never really shown to us, only referred to in repetitive, folksy, flowery speeches, it's hard to fathom what all the fuss is about. And because the central characters are depicted in such broad, hackneyed strokes -- grandmother as comforting sage, long-suffering mama, misunderstood child destined to overcome her environment -- we never get sufficiently caught up in the drama itself. Take away the racial-ethnic overlay and Hannah has an awful lot in common with Yentl or Anne of Green Gables.
Perhaps "Praise House" would work better without words. The seamless weave of chants, field hollers, gospel numbers and ballads (music by Carl Riley, lyrics by Riley and Angelyn DeBord) and the African- and modern-dance-inspired movements and sequences (choreographed by company Director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Pat Hall-Smith) could easily constitute a full-fledged production. Come to think of it, Hannah and her mother are at their most eloquent when they allow their tension-filled bodies to stretch, writhe and shake out their innermost feelings.
For this spectator, Thursday night's performance also suffered from Greene's overblown and ultimately unconvincing portrayal of Granny (she also serves as Elder Hannah, a kind of omniscient narrator). Because this character must provide both the spiritual backbone and the comic relief, it is essential that she win our hearts completely. Greene needs to tone down the cutesiness, revel in the silences as well as the chatter, and articulate better (Laurie Carlos, the role's originator, is scheduled to play Granny for the remainder of the run). Fortunately the rest of the ensemble, and particularly the beautifully awkward, vibrant Sheely, does a stellar job. Intermittently their voices, gestures and overall passion make one forget the void that lurks at the heart of the piece.
Praise House, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, will be performed tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 4.