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With March kicking off Women's History Month, Pure Life Theatre Company's current production of She Persisted: The Musical, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma and script and lyrics by Adam Tobin, is a perfect pick for the occasion. Based on Chelsea Clinton's children's book of the same name, She Persisted follows a fourth-grader through a class field trip to the Women's History Museum. Having recently received a less-than-stellar grade on a class assignment, Naomi (Kiara Julien) frets over the latest class assignment to write an essay about the women featured on the museum tour. In a magical moment, Naomi gets the gift of a "little time" in the embodiment of Time herself (Mia Burton). Time takes Naomi on a trip through the decades in which she learns about the accomplishments of some of history's great women: Sonia Sotomayor, Dr. Virginia Apgar, Harriet Tubman, Florence Griffith Joyner, Sally Ride, and Ruby Bridges.
The uninterrupted 70-minute runtime, punctuated with 12 musical numbers, made for an aptly paced production for the target youth audience. Director Deb Royals double-cast much of her ensemble as both fourth-grade students and historic women featured in the museum, allowing each a moment in the spotlight. Straightforward production design elements provided an uncomplicated platform for the performance, further zeroing the focus on the stories unfolding on stage. Jeanine Borzello’s scenic design featured the black box walls of the theater adorned on three sides with framed photos of history's most influential women. The main backdrop featured the women whose stories were shared in the production, with a large-framed screen capturing projections of each icon as her story unfolded. Lighting designers Janaya Farrar and Jireh Ijeoma likewise presented an unfussy design with appropriate embellishments creating magical moments to facilitate the transitions between decades. Julia Gainey’s costume design unified the schoolmates in basic, academy-style uniforms and focused more detailed designs on the iconic women telling their stories. Harriet Tubman's look was particularly effective.
The ensemble of She Persisted brought together a variety of artistic experiences to present an accessible and inspiring work for young people. Kiara Julien and Mia Burton carried the bulk of the dialogue with a comfortable balance between Julien’s humble confidence portraying Naomi and Burton’s bubbly encouragement as Time. For the young characters whose place in history was unknown to them at the time, a young Sonia Sotomayor (Melanie Payne), Ruby Bridges (Qualia Holder-Cozart), and Naomi, the actors cast to play the adult characters – Ms. Chan (Maria L. Barber), Dr. Apgar (Julia Drayton), Florence Griffith Joyner (Essi), Harriet Tubman (Verlene Oates), and Sally Ride (Emily Steinhoff James) – captured a spirit of guidance and support for the three younger characters. Barber was nurturing and bright as fourth-grade teacher Ms. Chan. Drayton and Oates were both unassuming yet sturdy as Dr. Apgar and Harriet Tubman, respectively. Essi’s Florence Griffith Joyner and Steinhoff James’ Sally Ride were energetic and inspiring, in their musical numbers particularly. Other musical standouts included Melanie Payne’s powerful Sonia Sotomayor and Qualia Holder-Cozart’s especially compelling Ruby Bridges. Propelled by the robust talent of the live four-piece band, the reprise of Ruby Bridge’s “Walk On” wove together elements from the entire production for a heart-warming (and tear-jerking, for this viewer), evocative finale.
Pure Life’s intimate production of She Persisted: The Musical provides an excellent springboard for Raleigh youth to take a deeper dive into the history of women in the U.S. and abroad. The multiple-cast characters afforded young audience members the opportunity to see young women, much like themselves, literally transform into iconic women who changed the course of history. That powerful imagery coupled with the humble storytelling from the Pure Life cast makes this production of She Persisted something special.
She Persisted continues through Sunday, March 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.