MetroStage premiers D.C.-based musical

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Michael Toscano

The cast and creative team of the new musical Blackberry Daze take a break during a recent rehearsal. The musical is based on Ruth P. Watson’s book, and is situated in the Washington area just after World War I. Blackberry Daze will be performed at MetroStage from Sept. 1 to Oct. 9.
Photo by Chris Banks

Alexandria’s MetroStage offers something for readers and theater-goers alike with its world premiere production of Blackberry Daze, a musical based on the whodunit novel Blackberry Days of Summer, by Ruth P. Watson.

The author hopes this production, with a run lasting from Sept. 1 to Oct. 9, will eventually lead to Broadway. And beyond that, she can see a series of musicals based on the book’s three sequels, including one which is being published this fall, and one she is currently writing.

“Even if you don’t read books, people love music,” Watson said from her home in Atlanta. “It was fascinating to see this come to life. I think this is going to be the musical of 2016.”

MetroStage commissioned its highly successful team of William Knowles (music) and Thomas W. Jones II (story and direction) — who have been responsible for many of the theater company’s musical hits — to transform the book for the stage. TC Carson (Living Single) and Roz White (Black Pearl Sings) lead the cast.

The musical has Virginia roots. Watson was a Blue Ridge Mountain girl, raised in Lynchburg. Although work took her to Atlanta, where she currently lives with her family, she set the story in the Old Dominion and in Washington, D.C. Action moves back and forth between a club in D.C. and a juke joint in Virginia in 1919, with the rural location providing much of the ambiance.

Watson said the stories she heard growing up in rural Virginia put a “definite spin” on the book, giving it “the color and flow of Virginia,” as she puts it.

Murder mystery

Blackberry Days of Summer was Watson’s first success as an author. As the first World War ends, a shadowy African-American man is murdered. Three women are suspected of the crime, but in this time and place, solving it is not a high priority. Family secrets are unearthed, and a central figure emerges from the three suspects, Carrie Parker, whose story continues in the three sequels.

The book is suspenseful, and readers offering comments on Amazon use words such as “hypnotic” and “poetic” to describe it. They write that the characters are vividly believable, and that mounting suspense keeps them from putting the book down.

From page to stage

But how are can such an ephemeral atmosphere, rich in suspenseful, “poetic” romance, work as a musical, with its broader parameters? Watson hesitated, and then embraced the idea when MetroStage suggested it, and she co-wrote the script with Jones.

“I had to wrap my mind about how this could be a musical,” she explained. “But once I thought about it, and I thought about human feelings and emotions, and how music projects that, I realized that through the music, people are going to be able to experience the characters, to feel the emotions. Whether the tempo is fast or slow, or it’s jazzy or gospel, everyone will relate to it. It’s period music, infused with gospel, really soulful music.”

But will fans of the series of novels (which also includes An Elderberry Fall, Cranberry Winter, scheduled for October release, and Strawberry Spring, which she’s still writing) embrace the transition, with its necessary alterations? Watson is satisfied they will.

“Tom is truly brilliant. And when we sat down to write the play, we said, you know, ‘how do you do this?’ In musicals, it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The words pertain to what the emotions are, what’s going on with that person at that time.

“When the composer adds the music to it, the beat, the tempo and how the chords come together all help tell a story and help color in the characters. I think it’ll be even more exciting because the cast plays off the music, and the music makes suggestions about the characters,” Watson said.

Racial tensions still reverberate

The plot outline of Blackberry Days of Summer, with its murder of a black man and lack of dynamic response in that time and place, is rich in potential racial tension. But Watson said she was not specifically crafting the plot in that manner, admitting, however, that it can be seen as “a mini-history lesson.”  

“I was writing about something that I thought could have happened in 1919, and if it did, it would be sort of edgy,” she said. “But it could be today’s story, anywhere. It’s amazing how things have and haven’t changed in the human heart, in feelings and emotions.

“The book talks about things important to women, things like being able to say certain things in that time period, to make a man accountable for his actions.”

After college, Watson worked in the corporate world. Publishing stories in the company newsletter sparked her interest in writing, leading to her current success.

She is acutely aware the experiment with MetroStage could lead to another chapter in her own life. She will be at the theater for the first week of shows, visiting with friends from Virginia and Atlanta who are making the trip, eager to see her work performed live.

“You just have to say thank you for the blessing and just go for it. I’m thankful MetroStage chose this work,” she said with a laugh.

Blackberry Daze runs through Oct. 9 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St. in Alexandria. 

Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. 

Tickets are $55-$60 and can be reserved by calling (703) 548-9044 or visiting www.boxofficetickets.com. Save $15 for all performances through Sept. 11 with the discount code BLACKBERRY. For information, visit www.metrostage.org. 

There is free, on-site parking available, a nearby restaurant, and the theater is accessible to persons with disabilities.