THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

Earnest portrait amid troubled times

'Mother G' uses gospel to tell story of race, scandal

The choir - (from left) Garry Bates, Lakeisha Gilliard, David J. Curtis (back), Marvelyn McFarlane (front, as Hazel), Linda Starks-Walker, Alphonzo Moultrie, and Latonya Gregg, as Mother G - in Robert Johnson's play. The choir - (from left) Garry Bates, Lakeisha Gilliard, David J. Curtis (back), Marvelyn McFarlane (front, as Hazel), Linda Starks-Walker, Alphonzo Moultrie, and Latonya Gregg, as Mother G - in Robert Johnson's play. (Robert Johnson)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 2, 2009
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In "Mother G," playwright Robert Johnson tells a powerful story of women standing up to a corrupt pastor and the men who initially support him. Though the play could bear some trimming and tightening, the passion and commitment both of the playwright and of his subject come shining through.

That's not surprising, for Johnson based "Mother G" on events in his own mother's life. Set in a black church in Dorchester in 1963, in the midst of the burgeoning civil rights movement, the play vividly captures the mood and issues of its time even as it remains a tightly focused study of personal morality and conflict. And, of course, it can't help resonating with more recent scandals in churches of all stripes.

Mother G, whose given name is Louise, is the spiritual mother of the New Beacon Baptist Church, where attendance and donations have burgeoned under the charismatic new pastor, Rev. James Mercy. But Rev. Mercy, we soon learn, has also seduced the young and innocent lead singer of the choir, Hazel Washington. Now pregnant, the orphaned Hazel turns to Mother G for help, and turmoil ensues.

Johnson structures the play with the church's gospel singers providing transitions between scenes. Sometimes this provides effective emotional support or counterpoint to the action; at other times, particularly as the conflict between Mother G and the pastor intensifies, it slows the story rather than intensifying it. Still, the singing is rousing, inspirational, and strong - and it's a simple and direct way of showing the power of the women in a church that was still mostly run by men.

It also provides a natural way to showcase Hazel's own power, something that would be hard to see without her singing because, when she's not in the choir, she's a shy and reserved young woman. And Marvelyn McFarlane makes the most of these contrasts, unleashing Hazel's pure singing voice and then retreating back into the anxious awkwardness of a lonely young woman in trouble.

As Mother G, meanwhile, Latonya Gregg is a serene mountain of strength. At first reluctant to believe that the pastor she admires could be guilty, she nevertheless listens to Hazel's story with a deep stillness that is a spiritual lesson in itself. And, once convinced, she becomes an unstoppable force.

In this pivotal scene and a few others, unfortunately, Johnson doesn't provide quite enough for the performers to work with: We see Mother G's struggle on Gregg's face, but we don't hear exactly what it is that persuades her Hazel is telling the truth. Later, when some of the male elders of the church come around to Mother G's side, we could also use a bit more articulation of the thinking that made them go against their upbringing and their beliefs about men's and women's respective roles.

By the same token, a character named Al Burgan could use further thought. Like Hazel, he's a young person whom Mother G has taken under her wing; he also serves as a catalyst to action when the women seem more inclined to pray for help than to help themselves. But some of his scenes, particularly when he starts talking about his life on the streets in Cleveland, feel extraneous to the story - and his tenuous attraction to Hazel, while appealing, neither builds to anything nor diminishes in a persuasive way.

Mostly, though, "Mother G" is a moving portrait of a clearly beloved and powerful woman, and of the ways in which she quietly moved a community to do the right thing. It's easy to see why Jacqui Parker, who directs the play with empathy and respect, chose this story to open her Our Place Theatre Project's ninth annual African-American Theatre Festival.

It's a story well worth telling - and hearing. And it's a story that, unfortunately, still needs to be told.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

MOTHER G Play by Robert Johnson

Directed by: Jacqui Parker. Set, Peter Colao. Lights, Jonathan Bonner. Part of the 9th African-American Theatre Festival, presented by Our Place Theatre Project.

At: Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, through Friday. Tickets $15-$35, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com

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