Fitzhugh & Rivers Fail to Find Meaningful Flow
by Abby Tozer
Thirty minutes into Act I of Broadbend, Arkansas, a two-part jazz musical on the generational struggles of Black Americans against police brutality, and all we’ve seen so far is two white women argue over a Scrabble tile. What could be a poignant statement on the relationship between a father, Benny, and his daughter, Ruby, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, has sadly become lost in its side stories.
Since Ellen Fitzhugh’s Act I libretto, “Just One Q”, once functioned as a stand-alone mini musical, it comes as no surprise that “Broadbend, Arkansas” is somewhat disjointed. Fitzhugh assigns her leading man, Justin Cunningham, the grueling task of single-handedly exploring the relationship between his white boss, Julynne, and Bertha, his white patient. With limited stage time as Benny, the black father and would be front man of the show, Cunningham takes a metaphorical back seat to his white counterparts.
Benny’s storyline is eventually furthered when he joins the Freedom fighters and returns “with inspiring stories” for his girls and concludes that “lifting kids is how tomorrow gets better”. This theme scrapes its way into the second Act, but regretfully, it is Julynne that raises Ruby and Sam after Benny is murdered in an act of police brutality. She serves as the golden (or should I say white) thread to tie us into Act II.
Fast-forward to 1988, 27 years after Act I. Ruby’s fifteen-year-old son, Ben, has been hospitalized after a Montgomery police officer was “forced to subdue” him. Ruby recounts how she always felt small, in the hallways at school, in the shadow of her sister Sam and as a single mother. We empathize with her pain through her effortless lyrical protestations.
With a strong libretto by Harrison David Rivers, Act II manages to bring us back to what, I assume, is the heart of the piece. With grace and precision, Ruby, brought to life by the honey voiced Danyel Fulton, belts out to the grave of her father, “Am I enough? Am I strong enough?”
The inter-generational connection between Benny and Ruby highlights continuing police violence and forces us to consider how the many problems we face today ring eerily similar to those of the 1960s. I consider this connection the true heart of the piece, though we spend Act I pretty much entirely disconnected from it.
Additionally, the continuing metaphor of the Freedom Riders bus also helps tie everything together. In Act I, the Freedom Rider bus reads “it is such a comfort to ride the bus” and Act II ends as Ruby powerfully cries out, “We’ve gotta get on the bus. We must get back on the bus!” Ruby pays homage to Benny’s fight, and the ongoing fight of all POC who just want to keep moving forward.
All in all, if you like jazz musicals and you’re sitting at home on a Tuesday night with nothing to do, this is for you. But, if you go into it expecting a deeply introspective look into the civil rights movement or an exploration into the relationship between a father and daughter (what it should have been), you might as well get off the bus now.
“Broadbend, Arkansas” by Ted Shen, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, directed by Jack Cummings III — Streaming New York Public Theater & Transport Group. http://transportgroup.org/broadbend-streaming/
Cast: Justin Cunningham and Danyel Fulton.