Originally commissioned by Musical Theatre Works in 2004, the show, written by Andrea Frierson-Toney, won the 2004 Library of Congress Parsons Fund Award in Ethnographic Research. An excerpt from Soon of a Mornin' was performed at the Kennedy Center as part of the Page to Stage festival.
The musical is "inspired by the Gee's Bend quilters and Library of Congress 1941 field recordings of their Alabama community."
"The title, Soon of a Mornin', is a Southern euphemism meaning 'at daybreak' or 'first thing in the morning,'" composer-lyricist-librettist Frierson-Toney told Playbill.com. "I first heard the phrase while listening to and transcribing the source material for this musical — Library of Congress 1941 field recordings of the people of Gee's Bend. I chose it as my title because I thought it sounded full of hope and promise, as in 'things may be really lousy now, but soon of a mornin' they'll be better.'"
Frierson-Toney, the librettist, composer and lyricist, is a Broadway performer who has appeared in The Lion King, Once On This Island, Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, and more. The first musical she wrote, Lady Be Good, about Ella Fitzgerald, was workshopped at Lincoln Center, winning a 1999 NYS Council on the Arts Development Grant. She has also written for the Nickelodeon TV series "Allegra's Window" in which she also starred as Miss Melody.
How did the project come to life? Frierson-Toney explained, "One spring day in 2001 I walked into the Folklife Center of the Library of Congress while on a brief vacation in Washington, DC, in search of something to write about — though I had no idea what. A terrific archive specialist named Jennifer Cutting handed me seven boxes of reel-to-reel tape, recorded in Gee's Bend, Alabama 1941, and said, 'You might be interested in this.' I immediately felt I was hearing something very important, came back to New York, got more clothes and stayed for two more weeks in order to create a written transcript of the recordings."
She continued, "From there, I went on to research Gee's Bend for three more years, and in 2003 I made a field trip there by myself. It was kind of comical, actually — me driving around in circles down the dusty Alabama roads, searching for Gee's Bend. I'd never been anyplace before where there were no street signs!"
Is it a documentary?
"The characters are fictional but based on actual people," the songwriter-librettist said. "Sarah Mae, the African-American quilter, for example, is a kind of composite of several of the now famous Gee's Bend quilters who I've come to know personally, and love. Freidberg, the government photographer is based on the talented, young Arthur Rothstein — one of a handful of photographers (including Dorthea Lange) — who worked for the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) during the Roosevelt Administration. It was their job to go to these off the beaten path places to photograph farmers in the rural South, and/or displaced migrant workers, etc to put a spotlight on the devastating conditions in those places (think: 'Grapes of Wrath'). This exposure often led to the creation of government-sponsored projects to improve conditions — as in the case of Gee's Bend Farms, the subject of Soon of a Mornin'."
Director-choreographer Gerry McIntyre most recently choreographed Side by Side by Sondheim at the 2005 Berkshire Theatre Festival and directed and choreographed the Actors Theatre of Louisville production of Ain't Misbehavin'.
The cast includes Milton Craig Nealy, Carole Denise Jones, Megan Magill, Fred Rose, Jason Veasey, Richard E. Waits and Bianca Jazzmine Ottley.
Michael Bottari and Ron Case (Broadway's State Fair, Off-Broadway's Shanghai Moon) design sets and costumes with lighting design by Richard Latta and sound design by Adam Goins. Bill Vanaver is musical director with Andy Tierstein as assistant musical director.
The production, in rep with other NYMF shows, is produced by Robert A. Carreon. After a long career at Time-Warner in consumer marketing and special events, he makes his legit producing debut with this production.
Performances play the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. The schedule is Sept. 13 at 8 PM, Sept. 17 at 1 PM, Sept. 18 at 8 PM, Sept. 19 at 4:30 PM, Sept. 20 at 1 PM, Sept. 24 at 4:30 PM.
Tickets are $15 and available via www.nymf.org or (212) 352-3101.
Dedicated to discovering new work and new artists, The New York Musical Theatre Festival "celebrates the diversity, creativity, and future of musical theatre." NYMF is a flagship program of the National Music Theater Network, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, and is America's largest annual musical theatre event.