Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog



Kate Udall, Carole Monferdini & John Wojda in FOUR PLACES

The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) have nominated Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s artists and productions for a total of 9 awards in the Large Theater category. Four Places by Joel Drake Johnson made its East Coast Premiere at Merrimack Rep and took the lead with four nominations, including Best Production of a Play; Best Actress (Carole Monferdini), and Best Supporting Actress (Kate Udall). Charles Towers, Merrimack Rep’s own Artistic Director was nominated for Best Director for the third consecutive year, an award he won in 2008 for directing Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance.


In total, four of Merrimack Rep’s productions of 2010 earned IRNE nominations. Beasley’s Christmas Party, adapted by C.W. Munger, from the story by Booth Tarkington, and Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins, tied with two nominations each. Joey Collins was nominated for Best Actor in Beasley’s Christmas Party after lighting up the stage in multiple roles, including Mr. Beasley himself. Will Pickens was also nominated for Best Sound Design. Cherene Snow made her Merrimack Rep debut as Pearl and earned a Best Actress nomination, while Robin Vest received a nomination for Best Set Design in Black Pearl Sings!. Heralded Boston actress Karen MacDonald was nominated for Best Solo Performance in Robert Hewett’s The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.

The IRNE awards will be held in the spring in Boston. For more information and the full list of IRNE nominees, visit

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Merrimack Repertory Theatre has completed its 31st season as the only professional theatre serving the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire, and it is proud to report that 2009-2010 was both an artistic and financial success. With the books now closed on fiscal year 2010, which ended June 30, the company reports that it has finished in the black for the fifth consecutive year and recorded a moderate operating surplus. This surplus has helped the theatre further reduce its mortgage on its Bagshaw Mills office/rehearsal/artist housing facility, and build an operating cash reserve. The challenging economy has impacted MRT, as unrestricted contributed income declined about 24% for the year. The number of theatergoers increased approximately 10% during the same period, however, and the number of season ticket holders increased slightly.


The Cast of The Seafarer. Photo by Meghan Moore.

2009-2010 was a season of many highlights for audience members. The Seafarer, directed by Charles Towers and featuring a cast of MRT veteran actors, was praised by the Independent Reviewers of New England, receiving nominations for Best Production, Best Director, Best Actor (David Adkins) and Best Supporting Actor (Gordon Joseph Weiss). The regional premiere of Heroes continued Merrimack Rep’s relationship with Keen Company and director Carl Forsman, and was another critically acclaimed production, being named to the Boston Globe’s Best of 2009 List and garnering a Best Actor nomination for Ron Holgate. Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s commitment to new work continued, as the theatre presented two world premiere productions during the season, the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ Flings & Eros and The Last Days of Mickey & Jean by Richard Dresser, the latter of which was commissioned by MRT. Also receiving New England premieres at Merrimack Rep this past season were audience favorites Black Pearl Sings! and The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, which featured the return of local favorite Karen MacDonald to the MRT stage. In January, playwright John Kolvenbach was introduced to MRT audiences with the production of his comedy Fabuloso.

Ron Holgate, Kenneth Tigar & Jonathan Hogan in Heroes. Photo by Meghan Moore.

“I’m extremely pleased that we were able to maintain our artistic quality on stage during the 09-10 Season after making a 20% budget cut,” says Artistic Director Charles Towers. “I would put our productions of The Seafarer, Heroes and The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead among MRT’s best productions of the past ten years. That’s our plan for next season as well: create exciting theatre productions by attracting the finest actors, directors and designers from on- and off-Broadway, other major regional theatres, film and television, even as we keep our financial management tight and secure. We have a great season line-up for 10-11 of world and regional premieres – fresh contemporary plays that are not tired or overdone. And we will create invigorating productions of those plays by attracting top-level theatre artists from across the country who are attracted by MRT’s singular taste and aesthetic, by the knowledge that they will be creating work at the highest standards of excellence, and by the opportunity to perform for our wonderfully smart and sophisticated audience.”

June 2010 marked the conclusion of Merrimack Rep’s five-year Keep Live Theatre Alive Campaign (KLTA). Beginning in the 2005-2006 season, KLTA asked businesses, foundations, government agencies and individuals to pledge annual sustaining gifts to cover the systemic gap between contributed and earned income. Because of the support garnered by KLTA, Merrimack Repertory Theatre was able to hire Executive Director Tom Parrish in 2006, eliminate the theatre’s accumulated deficit, generate positive working capital and operate in the black for the past five seasons.


Artistically, the past five years have been highly successful for MRT, with the theatre receiving 27 IRNE nominations (8 wins), 5 Elliot Norton Nominations (2 wins), an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, and designation as the Best Live Theatre of the North Shore in 2009. Co-productions with theatres such as Keen Company, Shakespeare & Company, and Virginia Stage resulted in the acclaimed productions of Heroes, Bad Dates, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Merrimack Rep also transferred its 2007 production of Secret Order Off-Broadway and later to Houston’s Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre. In 2009-2010, MRT expanded its season to seven productions, and served over 40,000 theatergoers.

At Merrimack Rep’s Annual Meeting on June 22 at Liberty Hall, the Board of Trustees elected seven new members, including Roy Anderson (Dracut), Rich Bolton (Stow), Michael Conway (Lowell), John Byrne Carroll (Andover), Linda Lieberman-Monticciolo (Andover), Will Soucy (Dracut) and Sandra Wilson (Chelmsford). Trustees serve a three-year term. The following Trustees were re-elected to a new three-year term: Debra Grossman (Lowell), Alison Kalman (Nashua), Ann Kazer (Andover), Susan Mitchell (Dracut) and Lincoln Pinsky (Carlisle). Retiring Board Members Susan Cooney, Carol Duncan, Frank Marchilena, Jack O’Connor and Jim O’Donnell were also recognized for their combined 96 years of service to Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

For the 2010-2011 season, the Board will be led by Chair Nancy L. Donahue (Lowell); President Norman Sieman (Newton); Vice President Debra Grossman (Lowell); Treasurer Stephen Irish (Scituate); and Secretary Patricia McCafferty (Tyngsborough). Artistic Director Charles Towers returns for his tenth season, and Tom Parrish enters his fifth season as Merrimack Rep’s Executive Director.


“A highly entertaining show that shouldn’t be missed.”
The Lawrence Eagle Tribune (Review of Flings & Eros)

“Merrimack remains Boston’s greatest theatre.”
The Hub Review (Review of The Seafarer)

“One of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in a long time…
the audience was on the edge of our seats.”
PMP Network (Review of The Seafarer)

“Merrimack Rep’s production of The Seafarer is spellbinding! An extraordinary ensemble of actors guides us through the dark waters of sin and redemption.”Joyce Kulhawik (Review of The Seafarer)

“Dreams and laughs. What else do we need? Heroes has both in abundance.”The Boston Globe (Review of Heroes)

“Brings glad tidings, comfort and joy for the holiday season.” (Review of Heroes)

“Hilarious enough to draw tears”Wicked Local Acton (Review of Fabuloso)

“Black Pearl not only sings, but soars.” Broadway World (Review of Black Pearl Sings!)

“Polished and well-crafted… for local flavor, Dresser is hard to top”The Boston Herald (Review of The Last Days of Mickey & Jean)

“A must-see show, you’ll wonder how she does it. The Blonde, etc. energizes and entertains.”The Lowell Sun (Review of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead)

“A triumphant ending to the MRT’s season.
The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead are not to be missed.”
Zingology (Review of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead)

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s 2010-2011 season is sponsored by Lowell Cooperative Bank. Merrimack Repertory Theatre is funded in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. All titles, dates and prices subject to change.

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Valerie Leonard & Cherene Snow in Black Pearl Sings!. Photo by Meghan Moore.

It has been a few weeks since the last post on the blog, so we are overdue for update. First off, this is the last weekend to see our production of Black Pearl Sings!. This show has been an audience favorite, so don’t miss out if you haven’t seen it. The last performance is Sunday, March 7 at 2pm.

We are currently in rehearsals for the world premiere of The Last Days of Mickey & Jean by Richard Dresser. The cast will be shooting their video interviews later today, so expect to see some behind the scenes footage early next week. Jack Wetherall, who plays Mikey, will be making an appearance on WCAP 980 on Wednesday at 9:30AM, so be sure to tune in or listen online.

Last but least, The Friends of MRT are having a charity wine tasting this coming Tuesday, March 9 at Stonehedge Inn in Tewksbury. Stonehedge Inn’s food and beverage management team along with the general manager and proprietor will select their “Top 25” wines from the largest wine cellar in New England. Light hors d’oeuvres from their culinary team will be served. The fundraiser will be hosted in the Left Bank dining room in a casual, social environment allowing you the ability to increase your knowledge about wines. Tickets are $45 per person.

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There are only two weeks left to see Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Black Pearl Sings!, so don’t miss your chance to see this wonderful production before it ends on March 7. The show has been receiving great reviews, which you can read below, and you can also check out our video trailer featuring Cherene Snow and Valerie Leonard. If you’ve seen the play, feel to leave a comment with your thoughts on the show.

Black Pearl Sings soars with passion and melody” – Lowell Sun

Black Pearl Sings! Tells Soulful Story” – Broadway World  

“Black Pearl shines at Merrimack Rep” – Metrowest Daily News

Black Pearl Sings; I Mean Really Sings!” – Zingology

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The following article appears in the Black Pearl Sings! study guide, and is intended to help audiences learn more about the production. If you have not seen the play, this article does contain spoilers that give away the ending.

South Carolina Sea Islands

The African song sung by Pearl at the end of Black Pearl Sings! was not invented for the play. In fact, it is a traditional African song that has quite a story of its own. The song is the focal point of a documentary called The Language You Cry In. The documentary explains that in the 1930s, there was an African American linguist named Lorenzo Turner who catalogued over 3,000 names and words of African origin in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He found that in these states, some of the Gullah living there could recite texts in African languages. One of the longest texts he came across was a five-line song sung by Amelia Dawley, who lived in a Georgia fishing village. She did not know the meaning of the song, but a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the US recognized the language as Mende, the major language of Sierra Leone.

Bunce Island, Sierra Leone

It took 50 years for someone to finally follow up on these clues. In the 1980s, Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist teaching in Sierra Leone, picked up where Lorenzo Turner left off. He discovered that Bunce Island, a British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many of its captives to Georgia and South Carolina. This is because these slaves already had experience growing rice in Africa, so they were of great value to the slave owners. This resulted in a relatively coherent community of slaves in the area, and why the Gullah have been able to preserve many of their roots.

After learning of the song, Opala and his colleagues set out to see if it was still sung in Sierra Leone. They learned one of the words in the song was unique to a dialect in southern Sierra Leone, and discovered a woman named Baindu Jabati, who knew a song very similar to Amelia’s. The song was traditionally performed at graveside ceremonies called Tenjami (crossing the river), and she knew it because in her culture, woman were responsible for birth and death rites.

Joseph Opala (right) interviewing an African elder living near Bunce Island in 1988.

Opala and Cynthia Schmidt, who discovered Baindu, then traveled to Georgia, and were able to get in touch with Amelia’s daughter, Mary Moran, now 69 years old. She knew the song as well, and it was discovered that women on both sides of the Atlantic were responsible for passing down this song. In 1997, Mary and her family were able to travel to Sierra Leone, visit Baindu’s village and meet her, and take part in a Teijami ceremony. Opala asked the tribe’s 90 year old chief why this song would be preserved by woman ripped from their homeland 200 years ago; he said, “That song would be the most valuable thing she could take. It could connect her to all her ancestors and to their continued blessings.” Then he quoted a Mende proverb, “You know who a person really is by the language they cry in.” Today, Opala is credited with identifying the “Gullah Connection” between Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in Georgia and South Carolina. 

The African song Pearl sings at the end of Black Pearl Sings! is in fact a real, traditional folk song, just like all the others in the show. As Pearl’s daughter has just died, and the song is traditionally associated with funeral rites in African, it is a fitting way for Pearl to honor her daughter and reclaim her roots.


Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay
yah lee luh lay tambay

Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay
yah lee luh lay kah.

Ha suh wileego seehai yuh gbangah lilly
Ha suh wileego dwelin duh kwen
Ha suh wileego seehi uh kwendaiyah.


Everyone come together, let us work hard; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace.

Everyone come together, let us work hard: the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once.

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, like a firing gun.

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, oh elders, oh heads of family

Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, like a distant drum beat.

(translated by Tazieff Koroma, Edward Benya and Joseph Opala)

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The following article appears in the Black Pearl Sings! study guide, and is intended to help the audience learn more about the production.

In Black Pearl Sings!, Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson is a native of Hilton Head, South Carolina prior to her move to Texas and eventual incarceration. Hilton Head is a very important location in African American history; it was a key launching point for Union military operations during the civil war, as well as a place where African-Americans were recruited to join the Union forces. Hilton Head also is home to members of the Gullah, a group of African Americans who live in South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah Culture arose on seacoast islands such as Hilton Head, as a result of the slave trade which took West Africans from their homeland (what is now the countries of Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia). The stories and songs of this culture have been well preserved, even in recent times. For instance, the folk song “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” comes from Gullah culture, and Gullah music employs the “call and response” aspect of African music.

The Gullah have been particularly successful in preserving their African heritage in the forms of language, music and folk beliefs, much in the same way Pearl was handed down songs from her ancestors, and intended to pass them on to her granddaughter. Author Frank Higgins was aware of Gullah traditions when he worked on the script. Even though Pearl has been away from the Hilton Head for years, she still retains some Gullah speech patterns. Higgins noted that if Pearl had been written to speak with a heavier Gullah influence, audiences would have had trouble understanding her without sub-titles.

Hilton Head Island - From NASA World Wind Project

The island of Hilton Head was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1526. At the time, the island was home to a population of Native Americans, but they were wiped out by disease and the Spanish settlement that began in the 1560’s. In the 1580’s, the English, led by Sir Francis Drake forced the Spanish out of the area. However, English settlement did not begin until almost 80 years later, when Captain William Hilton “discovered” the island for the English and named it after himself. 

Hilton Head played a pivotal role in the Civil War. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union, and was the site of early naval battles. In November of 1861, a Union fleet captured the island. 1000 slaves were freed as a result, and the Union held the island until the end of the war, making it a major base of operations. From Hilton Head, the Union forces were successfully able to blockade Charlestown, preventing the Confederacy from exporting goods to Europe. Many of the freed slaves on the island joined the Union forces, and became the first Black troops for the Union army. After the war, the Union left the island, leaving the Gullah culture to grow on its own for at least the next 30 years. 

As Pearl notes in the play, which is set in the 1930’s, people in Hilton Head “don’t got telephones.” Indeed, the island didn’t have electricity until 1951, and the first telephone wasn’t installed until 1960. And the island did eventually get its golf course; it currently hosts a PGA event every year. Today, Hilton Head is a major tourist destination, and home to the Gullah Celebration, which takes place each February and celebrates the culture brought over from West Africa during the slave trade.

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Our next video for Black Pearl Sings! takes you into the rehearsal hall for a sneak peak at Cherene Snow performing “Reap What You Sow,” one of her favorite songs from the production. Keep checking the blog, as more videos and song clips will be posted in the next few weeks. Black Pearl Sings! begins previews at Merrimack Repertory Theatre on February 11, and runs through March 7.

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