This show was everything that the musical version of The Color Purple should have been. Not that it was anywhere near flawless, but it told its story of struggle and triumph so much more honestly, and was just so much more interesting, in spite of largely being a failure. Like The Color Purple, it features a story of racial prejudice and feminism, and it even featured the same star, La Chanze.
La Chanze, along with her co-star Rachel York, are probably the best things about this show, both giving vivid and arresting performances as a bitterly feisty runaway slave and a desperately lonely deserted wife, respectively. The show’s main problem was its presentation—the show constantly switched between the actresses acting out their stories as themselves and narrating the action in the guise of old women in a way that was confusing and off-putting even on the cast album, and would clearly have been a disaster on stage.
The Flaherty-Ahrens score was also somewhat problematic, as it featured them attempting genuine Broadway avant-garde (the closest model being Caroline or Change), and this was a style they were not entirely suited to, so understandably it’s not quite their best work.
When the show sticks to traditional, full-out songs, it’s quite effective: both leads score strongly (La Chanze with the oral history “Twelve Children”, and York with the haunting “At the Glen”), and several of the other full songs are quite strong, particularly the gorgeous quintet “In the Bend of My Arm” and the eleven-o’clocker “White Milk and Red Blood”.
But most of the score is musicalized dialogue and ultra-brief song fragments that don’t have much impact, and it’s just not as melodious or memorable as Flaherty’s usual work. Still, the score is if nothing else interesting, and the show ultimately does a rather moving job of telling its story. For all its faults, it’s a fascinating and meritorious work, and its striking similarities to The Color Purple only make it look better by comparison.