Review: 'Clara' at the Open Door Repertory Theatre

August 9, 2013
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Her life was one classified as constant work and little joy. Though the energy and praise synergies she contributed to the gospel-arena ignited the world from sanctuaries to nightclubs, Clara Ward yearned for something we all have a desire for: her voice to be heard.

She had a voice, that’s undoubted. But whose was it? That was a battle in addition to the figuratively speaking strangulation brought on by her mother, Gertrude Murphy Ward (Toni Lynice Fountain). Clara dreamed of becoming a wife and a loving mother. Gertrude had other plans, and worked her dream of becoming a famously rich gospel singer onto Clara and her eldest daughter Willa, later forming the Clara Ward Singers.

It worked. However, only satisfying the appetite of one.

The story of Clara Ward musically unfolds in the McKinley Johnson production, Clara, currently showing weekends through August 18th, at the Open Door Repertory Theatre in Oak Park, Illinois.

Wearing dual hats as writer and director, Johnson unveils a talented soul stuck in the crossfire of an overbearing mother who stopped at nothing to strip Clara of romance in order to keep the change and dollars rolling in.

Set in an intimate space, scene one of the musical opens at the funeral of Clara Ward. Her grieving family is having a hard time leaving her casket.  Clara (Deborah “Dee” Lane) appears in spirit as her name is being called out, she makes it clear that she is alive – even in her death. She has finally become free.

“I had to die in order to live,” she declares as her eyes cut into her mother. That line rings continuously in your head throughout the production. It’s a powerful revelation and one understood all too well as we study and learn about pioneers and game changers of cultural influence.

Young Clara, played by Joshlyn Lomax, is bright-eyed with an awe-inspiring voice.  She loves music and has a natural talent for performing, playing the piano and not to mention she could create a song and its arrangement as if it were second nature, but being dragged from church to church in a 24-hour cycle, she can do without. Instead, she and her older sister, Willa, played by real-life twin Jillian Lomax , dream about becoming 18 and free to live the lives they want.

Their mother, however, had a vision and felt it was a message from a higher power to spread the gospel and see it through. She pushed her children, Clara especially, to the furthest extent -making them the breadwinners of the family.

For those who aren’t familiar with Clara Ward and the impact The Clara Ward Singers had on the gospel circuit, Johnson’s cast and crew shine a light on her dark story.  With portrayals clinging to truth and sparking emotion, we travel from Philadelphia in 1938 throughout the U.S. until 1973. Along that journey we see Clara’s family struggles, abuse received by Willa and Clara from a family member, The Clara Ward Singers adding and subtracting group members, Clara’s miscarriage and failed marriage which led to alcoholism and mischief  thereafter inclusive of an affair with Aretha Franklin’s father, Rev.  Franklin, and becoming the woman whom she wanted all her life to get away from. After years of drama, pressures to work non-stop and multiple strokes, we reach her demise.

Even with the sadness she felt in her physical body, the spirit of her talent lives on. To this day, the music created and performed by Clara Ward will always be remembered.

The cast of Clara, offer great emotion-wrecking performances.  You can tell they indulged themselves in this story and made sure to carry out their roles as honest as possible. The chemistry between Fountain, Lane and Tierra Whetstone (Willa Ward), were right on point. It’s an emotional ride, but worth learning the history.

Show Schedule & Ticket Information


Fridays: July 19, 26, August 2, 9 and 16 8 PM

            Saturdays: July 20, 27, August 3, 10 and 17 at 8 PM

            Sundays: July 21, 28, August 4, 11 and 18 at 2:30 PM   

Students (Full-time):  $15  ∙ General Admission: $25    Seniors (60 and over): $22   Group Rate (8+): $20




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