For its fall mainstage musical, the Yale Dramatic Association is presenting “Dreamgirls,” directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and produced by Adela DePavia ’19. The musical follows the lives of the Dreams, a group of three young black singers — Effie White (Aïssa Guindo ’21), Deena Jones (Elayna Garner ’20) and Lorrell Robinson (Anita Norman ’19) — as they struggle to navigate and achieve fame in the world of show biz. Amidst the flurry of exciting choreography, humor and occasionally heart-wrenching musical number, “Dreamgirls” explores friendship, the price of pursuing dreams and the race and gender politics of the ’60s. The musical was thoroughly enjoyable for the complexity of its themes and villain, its empowering message for women of color and the goose-bump–inducing moments when Guindo and Norman really let their voices loose.
The musical begins with a New York talent competition, where the main players are quickly introduced. Nervous but confident in their voices, the Dreams (at this point, called the Dreamettes) enter the contest with a fun, jazzy number — “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart).” Although they lose the competition, the Dreams meet Curtis Taylor Jr. (Christopher Augustin), a slick car salesman, who positions himself as their manager and eventually catalyzes their rise to stardom.
Incidentally, Curtis was the reason the Dreams lost the talent contest, as he had rigged the competition against them in order to secure them a spot as back-up singers to an established rhythm and blues singer, Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Aaron Marshall-Bobb). This mix of bribery and career advancement serves as foreshadowing for Curtis’ role as a puppet master, controlling outcomes and advancing the Dreams through dubious tactics behind the scenes. In my favorite line of the entire musical, Curtis is aptly described as a “second-class snake.”
While Curtis is undeniably a “snake,” Augustin creates a complex character, in both his role as a love interest and manager. At first, he seduces Effie, originally the lead singer of the Dreams, then later shuns her aside for Deena, who he promotes to lead singer due to her fairer, “more marketable” skin and softer voice, which would appeal more to the predominantly white audience controlling the pop charts. In both relationships, Curtis prizes his own dream of breaking into the mainstream pop charts above all else. He ruthlessly casts aside Effie once he believes her voice to be too soulful, and he disregards Deena’s dreams of leaving the music industry.
Yet, Curtis is more complex than merely a cutthroat manager bent on achieving his own ends. His dream of breaking into the mainstream pop charts carries a special importance because of the racial politics at play. Both the Dreams and Jimmy are black artists trying to break into the mainstream pop charts, dominated by white artists and audiences. Pushing back against skeptics and racial norms, Curtis defies expectations by breaking through the racial barrier. In doing so, however, Curtis makes significant compromises — promoting Deena to lead singer for her fairer skin, discarding Effie despite her stronger vocals, dropping Jimmy because of his refusal to fit Curtis’ predetermined (and “whiter”) mold and bribing disc jockeys to promote the Dreams. These compromises raise the question: At what cost do we pursue our dreams? Do the ends really justify the means?
Ultimately, “Dreamgirls” is undeniably an empowering musical. Initially naive in relation to men and show biz, the Dreams each individually grapple with and eventually overcome emotionally unhealthy relationships and find ways to pursue their careers free of oppressive restraint, namely from Curtis. Alone on stage, Guindo delivers an especially stunning rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” after Curtis rejects Effie for Deena. But more empowering is the moment of Effie’s return after intermission, when she confronts Curtis, sues him and snaps in his face. Guindo adeptly portrays a sweetly naive Effie and her transformation post-intermission into an empowered single mother, evident in her new costume design and warm, expansive voice.
Paralleling Effie’s transformation, a marked change takes place among the other women after the intermission. The women have loose, kinky hair (not straightened or hidden by a wig) and African influences become apparent in the costume design, particularly in Effie’s costumes. In tandem, each of the Dreams’ voices really embraces their voices, emotions and agency. As the second act progresses, the Dreams overcome the rift created by Curtis, reconcile and support one another and perform a final number together, each with their arms around each other.
The empowerment for women of color is mirrored in the performance of the musical itself. The musical features three female leads, who learn how to say no to unhealthy relationships — these moments draw enthusiastic snaps and cheers from the audience — and as the director noted in the program, “The Yale Dramatic Association — the second oldest college theatre company in the nation, which was founded in 1900 — has produced its first African-American musical on the main stage, ‘Dreamgirls.’”
Selena Lee | firstname.lastname@example.org