Williams’s transformation continues the modern tradition of viewing “The Tempest” as a parable of colonization but reflects the allegory in American mirrors: the slave passage, Jim Crow, the blues, Holiday’s own troubled life. Through the voice of Sycorax, the pride and burden of women’s emotional labor emerge as a theme. And Ariel’s immersion in popular song, counterbalanced by Caliban’s African drumming and chanting, invokes the complementarity and tension between authentic and refracted diaspora cultures.
It’s an abundance of provocative ideas balanced by a lean production. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set re-creates the nightclub — the audience at candlelit tables — but with a minimalist stage, cloth strips and bare bulbs evoking rain and ruins. Director Alison Wong fluidly maps shifting ground, judiciously mixing naturalism and ritual. Matty Griffiths’s Prospero has the stiff confidence and strained gregariousness of purposefully unexamined privilege. As Caliban, Jabari Exum palpably channels the blunt heaviness of resentment; his accomplished, magnetic drumming and beatboxing don’t lighten the energy but cunningly redirect it.
Ariel’s defensive sassiness evaporates in the Greek chorus of familiar Holiday songs; Nigel Rowe, in superb voice (and stylishly backed by music director Greg Watkins’s band), cuts to each number’s emotional core. And Michelle Rogers’s Sycorax is an elegant whirl of power, reproach, regret and memory.
Still, for a spell, “Stormy Weather” feels cluttered by ambition. Eventually, the play finds focus. As Sycorax witnesses the African diaspora’s centuries, the characters begin to show, rather than just tell, the accumulated burden of historical cruelty. The interpolated songs also start to consistently simulate the insightful flash of a pop-culture artifact colliding with lived experience.
At its best — with magic recalling its source — “Stormy Weather” makes lightning strike on cue.
Stormy Weather, through Oct. 27 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. atlasarts.org.