Exactly one week after the startling Saturday evening conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial, I found myself lucky enough to be in the audience for the fantastic “Best of Stevie Wonder” show at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. The timing of the show was certainly momentous, as Wonder himself declared publicly last week that he would not perform in Florida until the “Stand Your Ground” law, at the heart of the case, is eliminated in our state. Here’s his statement. Given the intractable nature of the legislative process and the controversy surrounding these laws, it may be quite some time before Florida audiences get the chance to hear Wonder’s music performed live, so that made the “Best of” show even more poignant.The Nate Jacobs directed production featured an ensemble of some of the biggest voices and strongest talent in town. The show began with a tribute to Wonder, who is one of the greatest living singer-songwriters of our times, and little Stevie (Derric Gosbourne, Jr. in his WBTT debut), who appeared wearing Wonder’s trademark sunglasses, performing some classic moves. Jacobs compiled 28 of Wonder’s songs, some more famous and familiar than others in an evening of unbridled joy and revelry. I love retrospective events, especially this one; because I am always amazed at how many iconic songs that are such a part of our cultural lexicon are from a particular artist, in this case larger-than-life talent Wonder. Highlights of the evening ranged from beautiful performances of classics including “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” sung with great nuance and sweetness by Nisi Pierre and my favorite part of the evening, a duet by Jacobs and his daughter, Naarai Jacobs, of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which had me teary eyed when he announced it was their first official duet on stage, to “Do I Do” performed with great savoir faire by Michael Mendez. Mendez has a smooth easy voice, matinee looks, and casual dancing style just waiting for discovery (he was recently featured in an article about drastically underpaid artists and deserves so much more recognition). Another stand-out was Henry Washington who brought his powerhouse voice and sense of humor to his performances of “My Cherie Amour” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” during which he serenaded Nisi, who had just brought the house down with “Sunshine.”
Perhaps the greatest emotion of the evening came from Wonder’s political songs about the plight of young black teenagers growing up in impoverished communities, such as “Living for the City,” with lyrics about hard-working parents just trying to get by (“I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow, and that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow, this place is cruel no where could be much colder, if we don’t change the world will soon be over, living just enough, just enough for the city!”). We all fell in love with his upbeat romantic songs; but he also has hard-hitting, important lyrics that he is able to deliver to mainstream audiences with a bit of sugar namely lilting melodies and catchy rhythms.
But the most significant line of the night was from the powerful ballad, “Heaven Help Us”, “Heaven help the boy who won’t reach twenty one.” Although Trayvon Martin was on my mind all week, this was a chilling moment that I hope did not go unnoticed by the audience. Wonder’s decision to boycott Florida and other states with “Stand Your Ground” laws could send a powerful message at least symbolically. Apparently, Wonder has had some success with previous boycotts. In 1991, he boycotted Arizona until they honored Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and eventually they did; but he boycotted them again in the wake of the SB 1070 immigration law, which is still on the books.
Will the decision of six jurors to set a man free, in turn set others free to continue to engage in much-needed dialogue about race? We are left to ponder Wonder’s words, “Now I lay me down before I go to sleep. In a troubled world, I pray the Lord to keep, keep hatred from the mighty, And the mighty from the small, Heaven help us all.”
In the meantime, do everything you can to make it to one of the remaining performances of the “Best of Stevie Wonder,” which plays until July 28th. It is a gem of an evening honoring a national treasure.