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Jevetta Steele stars in
Two Queens One Castle
Premiering at Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theater, Two Queens One Castle explores the life of local songstress Jevetta Steele through 18 back-to-back songs, ranging from gospel and R&B to jazz and pop tunes. Defying the traditional expectations of musical theater, where music and dance are integrated into dramatic plot, this "autobiographical musical-parable" lets plot and exposition yield to the emotional impact of the music.

The Oscar-nominated Steele (she received the nod for performing the song "Calling You" in Bagdad Cafe) was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child when her husband confessed that he was HIV positive. He said he contracted the disease from a girl when he was in high school; then, more than four years later, he admitted he was gay. Two Queens explores the stigma of homosexuality within the African-American community through Steele's personal story -- her Pentecostal upbringing, catapulting career, marriage, motherhood, separation and divorce -- and culminates with Steele's self-empowerment and victory over depression.

Steele has stated that her goal for Two Queens was to assist the healing process of women who, like herself, had unknowingly married gay or bisexual men. Considering the numerous shouts of "Amen!" and other approvals or admonishments during the performance by audience members who may have experienced that situation, Steele has succeeded. As much a revival meeting as a theatrical production, Two Queens has the entire audience clapping and singing along to its powerful music.

Highlighting the parable-like aspects of her story, Steele identifies the play's characters with universal titles like Husband, Wife, and Lover, rather than specific names. In an ensemble of six cast members, only Steele and James Rich play one character each, Husband and Wife. The other actors depict a combination of roles ranging from a mother, a minister, and a gay man to alternate personalities of the husband and wife.

Steele gives a tour de force performance. A gifted actor, singer, and recording artist, she has numerous stage and film roles to her credit, and her experience is evident in the finesse and assurance she brings to the stage. Supporting her is an ensemble of fine musical talents; particular worthy of note is Dennis Spears, outstanding as a conglomeration of gay, black men.

Under the musical direction of Sanford Moore and the stage direction of Thomas W. Jones II (who also served as Steele's co-author), Two Queens quickly moves from song to song, wasting little time in setting up each scene. Often, it is well into the second stanza of a number before the audience realizes that the locale or time frame has changed, but that doesn't matter much; the impact of the music and lyrics is strong enough to convey the characters' emotional state and motivation, bringing us to the next point in the story's dramatic arc.

James Rich, Jevetta Steele, and Dennis Spears
in Two Queens One Castle
Steele's lyrics, along with the music composed by William Hubbard and J.D. Steele (her brother), span the emotional range of her life, from the ironic and humorous to the dramatic. "So You Wanna Know" introduces the show and describes the public's salacious interest in the private lives of celebrities. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" sees the government's policy on gays in the military as a parallel to the black community's prejudices concerning homosexuality. Steele's dramatic range is best utilized in "Bed of Steel and Stone"; at this point in the show, several women could be heard crying in the audience.

The symbolic, musical revue-like set by Mark Hauck makes use of a series of silver mylar panels that reflect the actors from different angles. (The show's lighting is Kristina Brodersen.) These panels are also used to good effect in revealing characters "hiding" in the background at certain points. But the symbolism in Liam O'Brien's costume design isn't always so effective: The bridal veil that is used to enfold the actors like a blanket works nicely, but several abstract costumes -- such as the gay man's pant/skirt combination -- only serve to distract the audience.

Two Queens One Castle may not always be politically correct. For example,it never does address the prejudice and internalized homophobia that keep gay and bisexual men in the closet. It is simply the story of one woman's effort to heal the wounds of a failed marriage and, on that level, it works extremely well.

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