Angel Gibson as Osceola Mays in “Texas in Paris.”
The current virtual production from the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City is an affecting, micro-budget evocation of music’s power to bridge divides between cultures and people.
“Texas in Paris,” a play with music by historian/folklorist Alan Govenar, is based on a true story that he helped create. In 1989 Govenar took two authentic Texas folk singers of different ethnicities to perform in Europe One was Osceola Mays, a spiritual singer whose grandmother was enslaved before the Civil War. The other was John Burrus, a white cowboy singer who once broke horses for a living. Burrus’s repertoire, like that of Mays, included generous helpings of gospel music.
The show celebrates the unifying power of both music and religion as Mays and Burrus, who find themselves way outside their comfort zones, form a genuine (if limited) friendship as two strangers in a strange land. Burrus has a tough time adjusting to the metropolitan energy of Paris. He doesn’t particularly care for the food and he longs to get back to his ranch. Mays, on the other hand, finds freedom in a country where she’s treated as an equal.
Director Damron Russel Armstrong taps two talented performers to bring this show to life. Angel Gibson, who in reality is much younger than Mays would have been, delivers a nuanced performance that looks casual on the outside but in fact is driven by a subtle intensity. Her singing is outstanding.
As the guileless Burrus, Christopher Geil stands in sharp contrast — big, bulky, loud and often endearing. As the show progresses, the characters trade biographical details and perceptions. Both were the offspring of tenant farmers, which gets to an inescapable fact: Poor Blacks and poor whites in the south have more in common with each other than anyone would like to admit. But there are also sharp differences in terms of opportunities. Burrus could eventually own a ranch.
Filmed at the Warwick Theatre, there’s not much in the way of fancy camera work, although at times Armstrongs’s editing will bring a character closer to the camera for dramatic purposes.
There’s a sweetness to the show, a gentle emotional arc that brings the characters to share a thorny common ground. There’s a simplicity to the presentation, but there’s nothing simple about its depiction of two decent people struggling to connect on a human level.
“Texas in Paris” is available for streaming through March 13. Visit www.brtkc.org.