THE CONCERT DRAMA Tell Pharaoh tells the story of Harlem in word and song, but it is so much more. It recounts the entire history of African Americans in America by utilizing Harlem as a setting.
As playwright Loften Mitchell himself said, “It is an impassioned cry for liberation, for justice and freedom throughout the world wherever there is political, economic or cultural enslavement.”
“It’s hard to describe because it covers so much,” says director Teresa-Michelle Walker, a drama professor at Savannah State University. Walker is directing Tell Pharaoh, which opens Feb. 27.
“It tells the story of a culture, particularly how it relates to Harlem,” she says. “It talks about common misconceptions about black people. It talks about everything from coming straight off a slave ship to Harlem real estate.”
The play is hard to direct because it has so much history in it. “I found myself having to research every line,” Walker says.
“I call it a living history book,” she says. “It not only talks about black history, but American history.”
Tell Pharaoh has a cast of four actors and two singers. “I love the cast and appreciate the hard work they’re doing,” Walker says.
“They have to research every line just in order to understand what it’s saying. There are a lot of people in the play we’ve never even heard of,” she says. “They go from giving information to being a slave, to playing a white dowager.”
The cast includes Elizabeth Oliver. “This is her first time acting,” Walker says. “She’s wonderful. She brings an intensity to the production.
“Leshe’ Anderson is a theater major in her first year here,” Walker says. “Octavious Willingham has a maturity in his voice that commands a room. He’s a history major, so I definitely wanted him on board.
“Robert Dickens is a wonderful singer,” Walker says. “He has a voice that is bone chilling.”
Walker, who is from Waycross, has been teaching at SSU for a year and a half. “I went to agriculture school,” she says. “We studied the artificial insemination of cows. But I went back and forth from education to theater,” Walker says. “Finally, my dad told me to do what I wanted to do. I went to Georgia Southern University and majored in communication arts with a theater minor, then I went to SCAD for grad school.”
Walker is impressed with Loften Mitchell’s work. Mitchell was born in 1919 and died in 2001, after writing several plays and critical works.
“Dr. Ja Jahannes (also a professor at SSU) wrote a biography about him,” Walker says. “He passed it on to me. I don’t think anyone will walk out without learning something about African-American history.”
The SSU Players present Tell Pharaoh Feb. 27, 28 and 29 and March 1 at 8 p.m. and March 2 at 3 p.m. in SSU’s Kennedy Building auditorium. The first show Feb. 27 will be performed as part of the Black Heritage Festival. Tickets not required for that performance, which is free. Admission for later shows is $3 for students/faculty and $5 for general audience.
Loften Mitchell is best-known for the musical revue Bubbling Brown Sugar which also describes life in Harlem, considered by many the center of African-American life.
Bubbling Brown Sugar got a Tony nomination but Tell Pharaoh never made it to Broadway.
Teresa-Michelle Walker is directing, Heidi Bindhammer is the musical director, John Young is the stage manager, Dr. Robert Bailey is the dramaturg and Ansley Joye Jones is the choreographer.