Playwright brings powerful production to First Stage

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 23, 2014

WAUKESHA - James DeVita has done it again. The multitalented writer, actor and director has composed a moving story based on a young slave, Caroline Quartis-Watkins, who successfully made use of the Underground Railroad in her trip from Missouri to Wisconsin.  Together with the soul-wrenching music, selected and arranged by Josh Schmidt and Sherri Williams Pannell, “Midnight Cry,” the production now playing at the First Stage Children’s Theater, becomes an unforgettable experience.

The lead actor, Malkia Stampley, is a perfect fit for the role of Lida. Her youth and vulnerability are paired with courage and grit and an unrelenting hopefulness. She can also sing with strength and soul.  Other actors who render their roles with credibility and passion are her papa, played by Michael A. Torrey; her mama, played by Marvette Knight; and her uncle, played by Gavin Lawrence.

Lawrence was especially good as a catalyst and inspiration for Lida. He has a good dose of zest, knowledge and practicality. His energy seems boundless.

The musical accompaniment provided by musician John Nicholsen is very effective as a mood enhancer. Musical director Sherri Williams Pannell did an excellent job of providing high standards for the musical numbers. They are all beautifully delivered.  I was moved to tears upon hearing many of them.

The bad guys are convincingly portrayed by Matt Daniels, Mark Corkins and Todd Denning. Corkins and Denning also play good guys with equal credibility. It’s good to see Corkins back in our midst.

Sarah Hunt-Frank’s set design, consisting of wooden platforms of different sizes and heights, lends itself to easy changes of venue, and the costumes by Pamela J. Rehberg  are historically authentic.

Director Jeff Frank deserves a lot of credit for encouraging the development of this piece and executing it so beautifully for our enjoyment and edification.

For Waukesha readers, a bit of history - The Waukesha Freeman was named in honor of those who favored the abolitionist movement. Waukesha was a frequent stop for those on their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

“Midnight Cry” runs through Feb. 9 in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit