Review: ‘The Whitney Album’ Looks to Theater to Remake a Painful Past

Playwright and actor Gillian Walker takes Whitney Houston as a lesson in the engrossing, ritualistic new show The Whitney Album, which recently opened on Soho Rep. destructive and rooted in colonial conquest.

Unlike the uptown pop-diva style musicals, “The Whitney Album” is a classic soundtrack with percussive body movements, a cappella solos, and eventually group sing-alongs. Avoid hit catalogs. Directed by Jenny Koons, a nearly white stage (designed by Wong Peiyi) with a shining brass singing bowl in the center unfolds as a kind of happening, unrelated to conventional stories. The show assumes a style of what Walker calls “atmosphere.”

After a warm welcome, the playwright lectures on the power of theater to remake history (“Archives are shadowy silences,” she says). Densely packed with scholarly syntax and punctuated by basic rituals (such as pouring water or sand from one vessel into another), The Whitney Album brings intellectual theory and ritual to the point of abstraction. We are merging up to (Walker says she studied to become an Indigenous African priest after being handed over her honorary professorship.)

Actor Stephanie Weeks also joins Walker onstage, and the two exchange roles in celebrity stressful scenes with Houston playing the women closest to her, her mother and longtime best friend. (Ben Jarosa-Williams, the sound designer who runs the stageboard, briefly plays the role of an impatient white interviewer.) Comparing it to a salt water grave, we trace the trajectory of consumption and consumption. The disposition of black women for three centuries. This is a powerful argument, both persuasive and oversimplified. (The Whitney Album does not take into account today’s black female pop stars, such as Beyoncé, who have high levels of control over labor and publicity.)

The shuffle of the show’s format (including direct speech, reenactments, live and recorded vocals) can feel like a particularly soulful, high-concept record that’s more evocative than linear. . However, many of the accumulated ideas are expressed in esoteric words, which are not easy to analyze during the 90-minute performance, and ultimately do not come together as a whole full of inspiration and insight. is not.

Walker’s passion and intellect seem to place her in the ranks of artists and scholars she calls by her first names, including Saidhya, Rollin, and Bell. But how can Walker avoid participating in the cycle of consumption she seeks to criticize, a question she has proven has no easy answer.

whitney album
Until July 2nd at the Soho Rep in Manhattan. sohorep.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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