New Horizons breaks down walls in stellar ‘Freeda Peoples’

By June 3, 2019 No Comments

Karla Payne and Brenda Marks in “Freeda Peoples” (Photo: Richena Brockinson/LIONESSPhotography)

By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

Many, many years ago I was part of a small team of folks who started a theater company presenting works exploring the lives of LGBTQ people (although I don’t think we had all those letters back then.) I have one very clear memory of our second production when I realized that a mostly lesbian audience was watching a play about a lesbian woman and both the writer and the director were lesbians. It wasn’t just the fact that this was the first time something like that had ever happened in Pittsburgh, what was so captivating to me was that we had somehow (without intending to) eliminated the fourth wall – that invisible barrier separating the world of the audience from the world of the play. Standing in the back of theater it was near impossible to tell where the play ended and real life began.

I had a very similar experience the other night at New Horizon Theater watching their latest production, Freeda Peoples, a comedy/drama written by Joyce Sylvester.

Freeda Peoples continues through June 16. Carnegie Library Auditorium, Homewood. 412/431-0773.

The play takes place in a church in Harlem where a new pastor, Reverend Scott, is just beginning to find his sea legs. He is assisted in his duties by various church personnel including the Deacons Beasley and Lewis, Elder Jones and Sister Ann. Scott wife’s, Reba, is also a big part of the effort to breath some new energy into the church.

Sylvester has a great way of writing dialogue which sounds transcribed directly from real life; you feel sure you overheard these smart, funny people and their lively conversations just the other day.

Into the mix comes a mysterious stranger — a young woman named Freeda Peoples and her appearance sets off a chain of events. There’s plenty in the congregation who are Judgey McJudges managing to see the speck of dust in another’s eye while somehow missing the plank in their own. And several of the flock are holding in secrets keeping them hidden from the sight of God. Freeda’s here to bring it all out into the open!

Former (and much missed) Pittsburgher Eileen J. Morris is back in town to direct a cast of some strong Pittsburgh actors; Jonathan Berry is every inch a beacon of moral rectitude as the Rev. Scott and Karla Payne is his perfect match as Reba. Kevin Brown and Art Terry play off each other as the deacons; their easy-going exchanges are a highlight of the play. Brenda Marks has several strong moments as the secretive Sister Ann and Maurice Redwood does very well with Elder Jones’ secret. Paige Moody brings some depth to the shadowy role of Freeda.

I can’t really say that Sylvester has created a great play, or possibly even a good one – this is an extremely loosely written soap opera in which coincidences and revelations are almost too outlandish to be believed. But I think Sylvester – and Morris — probably know something that I don’t and have put together an evening of out-and-out entertainment.

To harken back to my opening paragraph. New Horizon is a theater company presenting works on the African American experience. The church in Freeda Peoples is African American, as are the performers. And the audience the night I saw the show was predominately African American, a group who know their way around this world. The issues of the characters on stage where the same experienced by the audience. The challenges and struggles faced by members of an African American church were shared by the people who bought the tickets. And it was this exchange of energy being tossed back and forth over the footlights which provided the production so much electricity. The call-and-response between actor and audience seems to have been something anticipated by Sylvester and Morris and something which they’ve actually planned for in the production. By the time we got to the play’s climax – which, in other circumstances, I would have found eye-rolling (and possibly offensive) – became almost like communion for everyone in that room, whether we were on or offstage … the fourth wall had vanished.

If you’ve ever met me you know that I’m probably the whitest person on the planet, and if you’ve ever talked to me for more than five minutes you understand I am the world’s most militant atheist … but for a few moments the other night at Freeda Peoples, I felt the spirit.

Can I get an amen?

Freeda Peoples continues through June 16. Carnegie Library Auditorium, Homewood. 412/431-0773.

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