When the show opens, Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) is living with her abusive father and their black housekeeper Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) who is both loyal and, as these tales tend to require, feisty. But after Rosaleen is beaten by white bigots for attempting to vote, Lilly persuades her that they should run away.
These you-go-girl versions of Mark Twain's Huck and Jim, find refuge with the Boatwright sisters, a trio of independent African-American women who raise bees, pray to a black Madonna and have a mysterious connection to Lily’s dead mother.
I get that our racist past means that until relatively recently, the black people most whites encountered were people who served them. Which is why we have so many stories like The Member of the Wedding, Caroline, or Change, To Kill a Mockingbird (in both versions) and now The Secret Life of Bees. Many of these are well-told stories by very talented and well-meaning writers. But I’m just tired of them.
The music, rooted in the percussive rhythms and down-home melodies of spirituals, is rousing. And Birkenhead’s lyrics, which occasionally borrow from Gullah, the creole language once spoken by slaves and their descendants, can be affecting (click here to read more about how they put it together). But these bids for authenticity also seem to be trying too hard.
Meanwhile, Gold’s direction is even more misguided. Even though he has the services of the imaginative scenic designer Mimi Lien, Gold sets the action on a mostly bare stage and many scenes require actors to get down on their hands and knees to mop up liquids he's unnecessarily directed them to splash or dribble on the floor as part of ersatz rituals.
The actors try their best to make it all work. Their voices are splendid and the harmonies they create are stirring. But the characters they’re playing are thinly drawn and their actions hard to believe.