Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame, a modern day musical directed by Ricky Minor, set in the tough streets of Los Angeles, premiered at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts on February 5, 2016; Los Angeles high school students watched the show on the morning of the premier. Gun violence and its consequences was fully debated and met head on with powerful dance, music and song from composers like Stevie Wonder, Ricky Minor, James Ingram, along with others. Ms. Allen wrote several of the songs and also acted as the lyrists for several songs. Thump, Ms. Allen’s son, added three songs and arranged Stevie Wonder and Ms. Allen’s composition. Girl Goddess. The music weaved together the tragic story of innocent death and the death it brings to the community.
The plot was well supported with the show’s strong character typing – David, the conflicted Bishop’s son, was played by Matthew Johnson, who worried about his place in his father’s message. Eartha, played by Ms. Allen’s daughter, Vivian Nixon was the beautiful inner-city, high school senior who wanted to break the cycle. Slick, played by Dion Watson, was the cocky inner-city high school jock whose dreams were big, but unsupported. Bishop Washington, played by Clinton Derricks, was the glue that held the community together with faith. Ms. Belinda, the strong teacher, played by Olivia -Diane Joseph, was the strong woman who protected her students. And Rosanna, the grandmother, played by Debbie Allen, and her grandson, Eleo, played by Enrique Torres, gave cause to the plot since he was without words and noted as “The Quiet One.”
The plot centered around David, Eartha and Eleo as well as wide ranging and colorful cast of characters. Eleo, Rosanna’s grandson, was mute since witnessing the gang murder of his mother and sister when he was seven in gang crossfire. The story unfolds with powerful monologues and dialogue debating what can be done about the street and gang violence. It was not a surprise when Rossana introduced herself as the “the gang’s oldest member.” With all of the violence she had seen, she knew the only way she could control the “out of control” was to be a part of it.
The acting, sing and dancing transported the audience to the inner city, the dialogue was chock full of realism naming streets, Crenshaw and the Gangs who controlled the land there. Eartha, filled the stage with her artistry of dance as the antithesis to the violence. Her fluidity represented the gentleness of her character and her athleticism juxtaposed the toughness of her discipline, the hard exterior she put up to protect herself. Her voice was on pointe and it embraced the passion and pain of what she had seen. The Bishop and the gun toting grandmother, were interesting advocates about the Second Amendment. The community demanded change, they also demanded the voices of the lives lost to gun the violence be respected and heard. The challenges were addressed by not solved with the scenes. The actors’ over exaggerated dialogue exemplified the conflict of the the Left and the Right and their opposing viewpoints. The actors stayed true to their characters with their gestures and body movements. But when the characters mentioned their ages, 17, especially Jimmy the Collector, who was played by William Wingfield, it disrupted the audience’s suspension of belief.
The Set Designer, Michael Scott Mitchell established a definite mood of the inner-city and the “hood.” The Gang violence and its poison was depicted by the videos, powerfully distracting at times, of the burning meth or heroin. The aftermath was depicted by the graphic videos of the needle and the arm. The Lighting Designer, John Rayment, used red and green sheens to define the violent moods. The white light illuminated the stage and represented a beacon for the future. The sound effects and music contributed to the show’s mood by suspending the audience’s belief – when the basketball team took the stage and after some playful rousing, ended in hip hop number, the audience realized, even in the tough inner city schools, friendship and fellowship can combat the violence.
The play had a dramatic effect on the audience. Friday’s performance, full of high school students was different that Sunday’s performance that played to a packed house. Not only did Debbie Allen encourage the students to be rowdy and to interact with the show, it added energy and inclusion into the performance. A much more reserved Sunday’s audience was generous with their applause and gave the cast a standing ovation at final bow. Ms. Allen returned to the stage and encouraged everyone vote in November 2016.
Freeze Frame was a powerful show about an entire segment of society “stuck” in the cycle of violence. Revenge, cross fire and forgiveness were intertwined through the scenes. The climax, when the police were chasing Jimmy, the audience witness violence touching the community again with a police shooting of mistaken identity. Even though the conclusion was rushed, the message was clear, “Why?” It could have been louder if, Eleo’s voice returned when Da ni was killed. Instead of quietly carrying off the victim, why didn’t Eleo scream “Stop” to give a voice to the unheard.