A mixed-race slave comes of age on a Mississippi River cotton plantation during the Civil War years in Carole Eglash-Kosoff and John Henry Davis’s epic interracial love story When Stars Align, a mini-series worth of plot compacted into two hours (plus intermission) of gorgeously-staged historical melodrama that proves involving and ultimately quite moving despite some occasionally clunky dialog along the way.
The co-writers’ World Premiere script, based on Eglash-Kosoff’s 412-page novel, moves at a breakneck pace from teenage Louisiana plantation scion Henry’s rape of slave girl Rose to their baby’s slave-quarters birth to Henry’s father Jedidiah’s discovery of his blue-eyed, café-au-lait-skinned grandson to the plantation owner’s decision to raise Thaddeus as a house servant and educate him almost as if he were his legitimate heir.
Not surprisingly, Jedidiah’s interest in young Thaddeus does little to improve an already prickly father-son relationship, particularly since young Henry’s unapologetic racism never ceases to rankle the plantation owner’s more evolved social consciousness.
And so young Thaddeus grows to strapping young manhood, unaware of his parentage, knowing only that for some reason, he has been taught to read, write and think by the man he calls Massa.
With the Civil War raging on around Moss Grove, Jedidiah invites a pair of young female kinfolk to take refuge in his plantation home, and before long tomboy Amy has developed a friendship with heartthrob-hunky Thaddeus, news which hardly sits well with her prissy older sister Elizabeth or with the handsome-but-still-hateful Henry.
If all this sounds more like a 1950s Hollywood blockbuster or a ‘70s TV mini-series, it is to director/co-writer Davis’s credit that When Stars Align proves a supremely theatrical creation, from the stageful of voices whose often lyrical narration propels the play through several decades of multiple plot threads to the addition of elements of magical realism that make the Odyssey Theatre guest production at times quite exquisite to behold.
Yes, When Stars Align attempts too much plot in two little time, and its dialog can lack finesse as when Amy and Henry have the following B-movie exchange: SHE: Ugh! Your breath smells. Let go of me or I’ll scream. HE: You won’t scream, you little tease. Come, let me see those cute little titties. Shhh . . . we’ll keep this just between us. Your sister never needs to know. SHE: Stop! Stop!
Still, there is much in this World Premiere production to entertain and engross, and to elucidate as well.
Particularly illuminating is the play’s depiction both white and black Union soldiers fighting side by side in the Louisiana Native Guards, the only unit in the Northern Army to have black officers as well as white. Also fascinating is the writers’ depiction of the interracial communities and schools established in the South in the years immediately following the Confederate defeat before Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan arrived to signal the end of black progress for nearly a century.
Scenic designer JR Bruce’s exquisite, non-literal set backs the action with weeping willows and a panoramic blue starry sky made even more vivid by Leigh Allen’s equally gorgeous lighting as sound designer/music director/composer-arranger Christopher Moscatiello and cast create the sounds of river and insects and riverboats without a single pre-recorded effect.
Jason Woods makes a stunning professional stage debut as Thaddeus opposite a stellar Haley McHugh’s fetching, feisty Amy while Sarah Lyddan shows off considerable dramatic chops as the bad luck-plagued Elizabeth and a fabulous Tamiyka White pays multi-layered tribute to Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and others who paved the way for When Stars Allign’s Sarah.
Veryle Rupp’s towering Jedidiah defies plantation owner stereotypes. Allison Reeves and Nic Few make powerful impressions in their romance as star-crossed slaves Rose and Faris.
Benai Boyd is ravishing as French Creole Melanie, the mixed-raced madam’s longstanding sexual relationship with Henry adding layers to the otherwise mostly two-dimensional plantation heir, whom the always excellent Nick Ballard brings to dynamic, dastardly life.
Brad C. Light does terrific work as plantation overseer Tom and Jacques C. Smith is equally fine as slave Luther and Civil War Sergeant Rufus, with USC sophomore Camron Jones making a strong impression as well.
Providing musical magic along the way in addition to executing various cameos are violinist Eric Charles Jorgenson and guitarist Kaitlin Huwe.
When Stars Align wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without costume designer Michael Mullen’s dazzling array of Civil War-era wear, Hallie Baran’s multiple period props, choreographer Arthur L. Ross’s graceful musical staging, Kalie Quiñones’s spot-on dialect coaching, or Orlando de la Paz and Marine Walton’s lovely scenic painting.
Tiffany Thomas is stage manager and Yasamin Eskandani is assistant stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
Additional program credits are shared by Richie Ferris (casting associate), Gaston Perez (assistant director), Renee Cash (assistant to the producer), and Will Mahood (sound and music assistant).
When Stars Align is produced by Leigh Fortier. Michael Abramson is associate producer.
Alternates Jahmaul Bakare, Elanna Barksdale, Huwe, Lucas Dean Peterson, Richard Sabine, Leilani Smith, and Xavier J. Watson cover lead roles.
Though additional script refinement remains needed, When Stars Align held me in its spell from its dramatic start to its surprisingly moving finish. Besides, when was the last time you saw a multi-million dollar Hollywood Civil War epic brought to life on a 99-seat stage to equally impressive effect?
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
September 5, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger