When the 92-year-old matriarch of a family dies, five female relatives are left to sort through her belongings in search of the perfect song in tribute to her life and legacy. Thus is the plot of Sistas: The Musical, an Off-Broadway play (running over a year strong) that takes audiences through the stories of the quintet as they walk down memory lane and pop music history.
The musical is the work of playwright Dorothy Marcic, produced by three-time Tony Award winner Hinton Battle and directed by Kenneth Ferrone. Sistas begins as the youngest of the family, Tamika (played by Lexi Rhoades,) twerks her way into her grandmother’s attic to “Milkshake” by Kelis. She’s soon joined by her mother Simone and aunts Roberta, Heather and Gloria who, in short order, school her on family history and womanhood through songs that range from “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” by Billie Holiday to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
That’s clearly a lot of ground to cover and, at times, it proves to be too much narrative to pack into nearly an hour. That’s a fact perhaps no more obvious than in a sequence centered on the deceased grandmother’s membership in SNCC. It feels a bit forced as the cast holds onto a banner and sings “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” Such heavy-handedness might tank another play, but Sistas is saved by its likeable characters, played lovingly by a talented cast.
They women are (nearly) all familiar Black family archetypes. Gloria, played by Tracey Conyer Lee, is the self-righteous church aunt. Badia Farha earnestly plays Simone, a college professor and the sort-of straight woman of the musical. Tamika is the painfully ingenuous sister/daughter/niece. Jennifer Fouché delivers a convincing performance as the cynical and wisecracking Roberta. And one of the “sistas,” Heather, is not actually family but a sister-in-law played by White actress Amy Goldberger.
Between Heather’s well-meaning, naïve attempts to connect with the other characters and Tamika’s youthful ignorance, Sistas has plenty teachable moments. But even those are outshined by a selection of top 40 songs you can’t help but sing along with or wait to hear. In fact, the best moments of the musical come when the songs the audience loves so much match the moment on stage perfectly.
“Black women have the same relationship with their hair that White women have with their weight,” one character says before the cast breaks into a truly entertaining and touching rendition of India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair.” And when Tamika struggles through a phone call with her boyfriend, her mother and aunts back her up to the tune of “Tyrone” by Erykah Badu.
Overall, Sistas is a fun, family-friendly hour of life lessons told through songs that reflect the highs and lows of being Black in America generally and Black womanhood specifically. It’s also a showcase for some of the best music of the past century.