It would not be gushing to say that “Vivian’s Music 1969” is brilliant. It simply is. Impeccably acted and beautifully written, the play, written by Monica Bauer, is a snapshot in time of a real event in 1969. Nothing is known of Vivian Strong except her age, age and cause of death, and Bauer uses these bare facts as the jumping off point to explore race, family, and awakenings. In 1969, a fourteen-year-old black girl was shot by a white police officer in Omaha, Nebraska, which sparked days of rioting.
I don’t know why this show isn’t selling out—it’s funny and heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. It’s a brilliant journey.
In giving Vivian a life and a voice, Bauer puts a heartbreaking face on a 50-year-old event that has resonance for today—black people are still seen as a threat and killed by police who feel “threatened.” The fact that this story is 50 years old only underscores how little has changed and how far we have to go.
“Vivian’s Music 1969” is written as a series of monolgues by Vivian and by Luigi Wells, an African-American musician who left Omaha for New York 15 years ago. A talented musician, Luigi had to leave and immerse himself in his music; but he leaves an unexpected legacy which is slowly revealed. He has come home to figure out what to do with his mama’s legacy—a music hall down by the stockyards.
Vivian is 13, turning 14, and loves blues and jazz; she also has a 16-year-old boyfriend who is a member of the Black Panthers. Smart, observant, witty, Vivian has some scathingly funny things to say about a 16-year-old boy thinking he’s grown enough to change the world. We also meet Vivian’s mother and her older sister, who has dreams of her own (but they, too, get derailed). Without sentiment, the show also underscores that the world is a dangerous place for girls with dreams, especially black girls.
Luigi (it’s a nickname) is also conflicted about being back home; and we also meet his mother, who’s always threatening that Luigi just wants to kill his mama with his behavior and is that what he wants? Well, she does die and leaves him with some big decisions to make, although he doesn’t realize it at first.
As many cities and towns were back then, neighborhoods were segregated not only by race, but by country of origin. Needing some money to pay the back taxes on the music hall, he takes a job with a Polish family (dad, mom and talented young daughter) giving drum lessons. This opens up another interesting exploration in how music unites people—turns out that dad is a very talented accordion player who longs to play more than polkas at weddings; he comes down to the club, which Luigi has temporarily re-opened to earn money for the taxes, to jam with the group that Luigi has put together, and slowly wins over these black musicians with his skills. But in the end, there’s a betrayal there too, and one that hurts.
And Vivian and Luigi are connected as well, by a deeper bond. In Bauer’s imagining, he gives Vivian her legacy.
Kailah S. King, a recent graduate of New York University, is a revelation as Vivian, and her mother, sister and boyfriend. She is so beautifully young and so sharp that she breaks your heart with all her promise. She believes she has a magic power—the power to be invisible until she chooses to show herself—and it costs her dearly. She is a young girl with a huge heart and a lot of brains who won’t get the chance to grow up fully. King is hysterically funny as the characters she mimes; and she can do physical comedy with aplomb—when she does the cool, dip walk of a young man, you’re rolling.
As Luigi, Russell Jordan is incomparable. He too acts out the other characters he comes into contact with (his mama—that woman is lethal in her hectoring, all done with love; and the three members of the Polish family). As Luigi, we feel his pain at letting his guard down with the father of his young pupil; he knows better, but hope keeps him going. His generosity toward Vivian’s boyfriend after the shooting, and his moral decision after that brings the audience to more tears.
This is a wrenching, yet joyous, show. The realities of these lives hasn’t changed over the decades, but there is still hope that people can do the right thing. And the characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts of nobleness—they are sometimes petty and conniving and tired. They’re human beings trying to survive and thrive and reach for dreams.
The set is incredibly simple, but it doesn’t need anything other than the white sheet backdrop, and the lone caneback chair Luigi uses. Each actor inhabits their half of the stage and fades back when it’s the other’s turn. It’s very effective, these stories told in tandem, and then converging. Glory Kadigan directed and the spare setting lets the words shine.
I don’t know why this show isn’t selling out—it’s funny and heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. This is a show that will rumble around in the memory. It’s a brilliant journey.
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
“Vivian’s Music 1969,” produced by The Essential Theatre, is at Anacostia Playhouse, Washington, DC, through July 28, 2019. For more information, please click here.