Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
For long time residents of Flint, the current musical offering at the New McCree Theatre is a walk back in time. The Saints of St. John Street is an original play written by McCree Executive Director Charles H. Winfrey. This version, an encore production of the same script first presented ten years ago, is true to the history of this close-knit but long gone African American neighborhood.
Set in 1955, the story focuses on four youngsters, The Saints, who in addition to being good friends are all members of a losing baseball team in need of a coach. Winfrey’s own recollections of the St. John Street area come to life in these kids. Showcasing the neighborhood as well are the parents and siblings of the Saints along with a few quirky local denizens.
This was a simpler time, but it was not without stress. The fight for civil rights was only just beginning and there was fear generated by radio broadcasts reporting first the Mississippi lynching of young Emmett Till and later the arrest of Rosa Parks.
Director Cathye Johnson moves her large cast around the stage quite nicely. Three front porches serve to define the neighborhood and provide a setting for all the action. An audience member sitting behind us spoke to the authenticity of the production as he pointed out the radio in the window of the center stage house. He remembered that all the houses on St. John had music playing from a window radio.
First we met the young ballplayers led by Stick (Isaiah Grays) and chuckled at their give and take conversations about a “hideout” and the team’s losing record. It is through these youngsters that we came to know the neighbors, including the resident eccentrics.
Folks like the wild woman, Slap-God-A’mighty (Patricia Enright), and the mysterious Pawn Shop Shorty (Ulysses “BT” Bailey) are slightly curious while Darius Smith, who reprises the role of Jomo, could be anyone’s favorite dad.
Tension builds when young Esther (Amari Robinson) decides to see where the boys go off to all the time. She follows them but doesn’t return. When the police can offer little help, the whole neighborhood joins in the frantic search. Interesting lessons emerge as folks begin to blame Pawn Shop Shorty, whom they perceive as different, for the girl’s disappearance.
Music is central in this show and serves as background to all the action. Much of it consists of recorded oldies, but five street corner crooners known as The Cavalcades (David Lott, Phillip Young, Linwood Peacock, Fredrick Fife, and Clifford Sykes) produce some wonderfully close acapella harmony. A highlight that delighted Thursday’s opening night audience occurred when young Stick joined them with his terrific Frankie Lymon sound.
Some technical issues surfaced Thursday with a screechy microphone feeding back once or twice and a dim spotlight not really highlighting well on the Cavalcades. Surely these will be remedied in future performances.
There is a host of talent in this cast. The youngsters are genuine and the adults sincere. So, although this production had a couple hiccups, the story is heartwarming and the nod to Flint history is intriguing and hard to resist.
The Saints of St. John Street runs until February 29, 2020. For more information, dates, times and tickets call the box office at 810-787-2200 or access them online at http://thenewmccreetheatre.com