Papa's Child | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Papa's Child 

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Papa's Child ETA Creative Arts Foundation. The life of performer, singer, civil rights crusader, and civic leader Etta Moten Barnett is ripe for theatricalization. One of the first African-American actresses to break the Hollywood maid-nanny stereotype, she sang for the Roosevelts at the White House in 1934, performing the Oscar-nominated "Forgotten Man" from her (uncredited) film debut in Gold Diggers of 1933. But while singing the soprano role of Bess in the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess, she sustained permanent vocal cord damage and began a five-decade career as cultural ambassador and arts activist. Now 100, she lives on Chicago's near south side and proclaims, "The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth, and I'm not ready for either one."

Barnett's inspiring life is given appallingly slapdash treatment in Useni Eugene Perkins's musical biography. In the creakiest of framing devices, a novice reporter interviews Barnett, asking such pointed questions as "So then what happened?" While an older Barnett recounts a sketchy autobiography--she apparently did nothing in the last 40 years--the younger Barnett acts everything out. Ernest McCarty's middling, shapeless songs intrude like unwelcome guests, while Bobby Andrews's clumsy direction and rudimentary choreography make this premiere look like an underrehearsed high school production. Thank goodness Jessica T. Usherwood displays ample charisma as the younger Barnett; she even overcomes the indignity of having a body mike taped to her forehead all evening.

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