My Lord, What a Morning

Karen Gardner and Millicent Sparks as Marian Andersonat two different stages of her life in My Lord, What a Morning(Photo: Mark Garvin)
Karen Gardner and Millicent Sparks as Marian Anderson
at two different stages of her life in My Lord, What a Morning
(Photo: Mark Garvin)

If, like too many people, you are a little naïve when it comes to Philadelphia’s rich cultural history, here’s an opportunity to become informed about one of the city’s treasures. Born in South Philadelphia in 1927, Marian Anderson was one of Philadelphia’s greatest contributors to the arts. What many of us don’t know about this great African-American vocalist is enough to fill a three-act play but, for the Arden Theatre Company, Kim Hines has condensed Anderson’s life into a 75 minute one-act for all ages titled My Lord, What a Morning.

The play depicts a series of remembrances by an elderly Anderson (the excellent Millicent Sparks) after the death of her father. Emotionally if not financially supported in her dream of a musical career by her mother, a cleaning woman (played by the terrific Kala Lynn Moses), young Marian sets out to take the nation by storm. Of course, this being 1930s America, her reception is not exactly a warm embrace. But while the discrimination faced by blacks on a daily basis is certainly referred to here, it is (with one notable exception) not the focus of the piece. This makes My Lord, What a Morning feel at times like an adult work that has been tailored for a young audience.

It is also, most likely, just the kind of representation that Anderson would have desired. A patient, quiet individual, she describes herself in the play as being neither a fighter nor especially political. “I got things done by just showing up,” she comments at one point. It was Anderson’s dogged commitment to her work in the face of societal repression, more than any political rhetoric, that made her such a heroic figure.

Essentially a play with music, the production features a number of Negro spirituals and classical compositions, both live and recorded. As the young Anderson, Karen Gardner displays a lovely voice, considerable acting talent, and the ability to pull off very well the lip-synching of Anderson’s recordings. (She is aided mightily in this endeavor by Jorge Cousineau’s sound design.) Paul Nolan provides some comic relief as Anderson’s manager and agent, Sol Hurok. Understanding the particular challenges of presenting a work that concerns an historical figure and high culture to a young audience, Jennifer Childs has directed the show briskly and engagingly.

Although a tremendous success overseas, Anderson is perhaps best known in this country for a concert that very nearly never occurred. When she was denied use of Washington’s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the concert was moved to the Lincoln Memorial with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt. In My Lord, What a Morning, Anderson quietly sings “America” with a genuineness that is profoundly moving as the image of a seated Abraham Lincoln projected on an upstate scrim. The scene is especially poignant in that it is the music that does the talking, which is no doubt how the great contralto would have wanted her message of the importance of following one’s dreams to be communicated.

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