Tuesday, July 23

Chisholm For President! – The Warehouse in Holbeck

It’s always risky when you see any work in progress which can often just be a series of vignettes that don’t really knit together, even if you can see the potential of the material being tested in front of a live audience.

That was most definitely not the case at this taster session for Chisholm For President!, based on the life of the first black woman elected to the US Congress in 1968 and then the first woman of colour to run for President in 1972.

Sitting in Slung Low’s cavernous newish home I was wondering why a brand-new musical, that is basically performers acting with script in hand and singing a bunch of original songs, seemed so fully formed. But then the penny dropped that this fledgling production has a very strong creative team behind it.

Playwright Zodwa Nyoni has crafted a clear book that fuses the vulnerable woman behind a tough political shell with contemporary references to Shirley’s battle not only against racism, but misogyny too.  Alex Chisholm is one of best directors of word and music keeping a big cast focused, even though a lot of the time they’re standing behind music stands.

It might seem obvious that in a musical the score must be good but that’s not always the case. It is here as world champion beatboxer Testament somehow manages to meld soul, jazz, funk and even a traditional Caribbean lullaby into a coherent musical palate that is already full of all Shirley’s emotions from hope to despair, and critically for any musical has quite a few bangers.

Wisely he also recruited a hot band, who have played with acts including Jamiroquai, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Omar, Corinne Bailey Rae and Mark Ronson, led by dynamic Musical Director Michael Lovelock. The guitar and bass were suitably funky, a top flight drummer held it down as the brass section and strings filled out the sound for an often dizzying number of strong vocalists, who basically played the history of the mid twentieth century that was swirling round Shirley.

So, book and score are in place but what about the acting?  It’s clear that the seed funding for this production has meant minimum rehearsal time as the actors are using scripts, but they still manage to pack plenty of intensity into the words and songs.

Madeline Appiah was born to play Shirley subtly capturing her inner strength, but also the deep personal cost of standing tall in a world that hates you.  Appiah is also a great vocalist, particularly on The Right Thing To Do as the candidate agonises whether she is achieving anything by standing for President, and there were tears streaming down her face on an empowering See Muh Lil Brown Girl, harking back to a childhood spent at her grandmother’s house in Barbados.  

In a clever twist Nyoni and Testament imagine a duet on We Go High between Shirley and First Lady Michelle Obama – beautifully realised by Rachel Modest – who decades later faced the same damaging abuse sitting in the White House.

If he wasn’t busy enough Testament is onstage joining in the punchy The Time Has Come as the men of the Democratic Black Caucus discuss whether Shirley should run.  Justina Aina was also in fine vocal form as idealistic aide Carolyn Smith and her intelligent rendition of Hello Mama as poured out her fears for Shirley’s safety down the phone to her mother was moving. Basement Jaxx vocalist Milly Blue impressed as Hilary Clinton who was also a victim of misogyny in another era.

This version ends as Shirley is stitched up at the Democratic Convention, so the team still has work to do finding a way of telling her story after that watershed moment, but all the key components of a strong musical are in place.  

It’s interesting that the audience for this showcase is noticeably younger and more diverse than many Leeds crowds. This is a work that will clearly bring in a very different audience for any theatre that stages it, in much the same way Barber Shop Chronicles did at Leeds Playhouse.

One of the biggest shows on the planet is a hip hop musical about a long forgotten figure in the revolutionary war, so there is an appetite for a production like this full of heart and great tunes telling the story of a more contemporary black leader, who arguably did much more to change American history.

The only question now is whether one of our big regional powerhouses will have the vision to stage Chisholm For President! because much of the heavy lifting has already been done, and if they don’t it would be a massive own goal.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 14th April 2024

***Work in Progress***