The Gospel Truth in ‘The Total Bent’

Haven Theatre and About Face Theatre partnered on The Total Bent, producing a  stellar production depicting a strained relationship between a Black father and son clashing on modes of survival and music. Directed by the stellar Lili-Anne Brown and written by frequent Tony Award winning collaborators Stew and Heidi Rodewald, this immersive musical is an expressionistic homage to Black bodies, the LGBTQ community, and freedom.

As we continue to spiral into our darkest timeline, we may come across photos that juxtapose moments from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement with those of the present day. The Total Bent opened during Black History Month, a time when the we are especially met with reminders that little has changed in the way of deep -seatedeeded biases (read: racism) and violence (read: brutality) against Black and brown bodies feel especially present and poignant.

We meet preacherman-turned-televangelist Joe Roy (Robert Cornelius) and his singer-songwriter son Marty (Gilbert Domally) in their church basement recording studio, their style and lyrics already at odds. Joe Roy is a historic gospel singer displeased with Marty’s penchant for activism and queerness. Previously an obedient son and songwriter, Marty now desires to document the Civil Rights Movement with lyrics in direct opposition of his father’s anthem “Shut up and get on the bus.” With the entrance of British con-man producer, tensions fly high in the face assimilation and resistance.

The Den provides an intimate, yet strangely wide, space for a show threatening to burst from the seams. Scenic design by Arnel Sancianco throws us right into the battleground of the dueling father and son. The set is smart as every piece has a purpose and others hide surprises. Practical lighting design that may remind some of their grandmother’s shaded lamps are peppered throughout set, giving the band of six musicians great practical lighting and shadow play (lighting by Jason Lynch). There’s not a bad seat in the house, as even the sound booth goes through moments of transformation.

When Marty decidedly splits from his father’s aesthetic, he’s quickly joined by back-up singers/dancers Andrew and Abee (Michael Turrentine and Breon Arzell), a duo worthy of their own musical. They become Marty’s backbone, supporting him (and us) throughout the show. Though, this support doesn’t come without a precarious balance between biting criticism, comic relief, and great hats (costumes Christine Pascual).

For a show that calls out the complacency, manipulation, and danger of white people, both via song and direct address, I found the reactions of the predominately white audience troubling.  Overall we are hit with a play that equal parts fun and moving. Everyone had a good time, maybe too good of a time for a show centering the perils of survival in the face of the entertainment industry. But there was a little something extra that made me hurt more than laugh. As soon as Marty books a tour and performs in London, his original dig calling his father an Uncle Tom is spit back in his face. Although the audience was empowered to call out and join in song, I wonder what else could be done to center who this story was for.

“In the final analysis, God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.” – Martin Luther King.

This quote from his speech “Unfufilled Dreams,” provides a telling thesis of a play that sometimes loses its narrative thread. Despite Brown’s excellent eye on the interpersonal, tracking where we were proved difficult for a show that doesn’t stop moving. In small moments we hear of Marty’s mother and her impact on his musicality, her influence on his morals. Women were oddly absent. Yet, these moments are soon forgotten as we are swept away with the potency of a live band, firecracker performers, and the gospel truth.  

The Total Bent runs at Haven Theatre through March 10th.

Director: Lili-Anne Brown
Music Director: Jermaine Hill
Text: Stew
Music & Lyrics: Stew & Heidi Rodewald
Cast: Breon Arzell, Robert Cornelius, Gilbert Domally, Frederick Harris, Jermaine Hill, Eric Lindahl and Michael Turrentine.
Musicians: Kamille Dawkins, James Garcia, Christian Moreno and Anthony Rodriguez.
Photos: Austin D. Oie

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