By Elizabeth Ann Foster

I heartily recommend this musical. It’s full of pleasant surprises as it prompts one to think.

“You ever been to a negro’s house before? Ever hear of Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Dr. Charles Drew, Bessie Smith? Got any negro friends?” Loretta Jones (Aigner Mizelle) asks Betty Belarosky (Paulina Breeze).

Just in time for Black History Month, Betty and the Belrays is a period piece set in 1963 Detroit. It follows the rise of Betty who has just graduated high school and according to her parents, it’s time to find a job.

Mary Belarosky (Gretchen Poole) asks her daughter Betty “What do you want to be?”

“I want to be a negro.”

“I mean a negro singer.”

“I mean sing for a negro record label.” Betty answers.

Betty has never had a black friend, doesn’t know any blacks, and has never been in their neighborhoods. She loves their music and dreams of being able to sing like them. She has no prejudices, just an open mind and heart and follows her dream. You instantly became a fan of Betty’s music. Her songs are innocent and beckoning. She can charm you with a song about peanut butter.

She organizes an all-white female trio called Betty and the Belrays and lands a contract through a black record label. Most all girl bands that flooded the AM airwaves during this time were black but their race was kept secret to sell records to a broader audience. Civil rights issues are expressed through her group’s songs.

Musical numbers include “Why oh Why the Segregation” and “My Boyfriend is a Negro.” When Joy Jones (Alexis Myles) asks Betty if she really has a negro for a boyfriend and she answers no, Jones is disappointed. While music can diminish racial barriers through its universality, real societal changes are not happening. Jones decides the black bands will not perform on the same white radio station as Betty and the Belrays.

Betty & The Belrays are offered a major record deal from a white label on the condition that they stop singing about racial issues. They refuse and instead  join SNCC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and attend demonstrations in Mississippi in 1964.

The musical closes with excerpts of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech made during his 1963 Detroit walk to freedom, the largest protest in America at the time.

Director Ian Ellis James (aka William Electric Black)notes that historically it was the girl groups who crossed color lines and brought teens together. They travelled to the south to march and sometimes to die. “In recent years, although we’ve had a black president, segregation took on different forms and so did the music. As barriers got absorbed and changed–we thought it was for the better–really it was for the worse. Is today’s music better (think of hip-hop), or have we really forgotten what it was originally about? Is the message lost?” He urges us to revisit this time again. “We need to go back to the music scene and how it united teens,” he says.

Talkbacks on past and present race relations follows the Sunday matinee performances. A schedule of the speakers appearing is on the show’s website, http://bettyandthebelrays.com/main.htm#talkbacks

Recommend Sunday matinee performances to attend talkback. The Sunday I attended director William Electric Black (seven-time Emmy Award winning writer for Sesame Street) was interviewing Columbia Presbyterian neurosurgeon Olajide Williams. Black is very interested in equality of healthcare. Williams explained how stressors growing up stunt brain development. The audience got to meet the cast and ask questions.

Betty and The Belrays- Written and directed by William Electric Black.

With: Levern Williams (Sam The Beat/Sensation/Terrell Parker), Paulina Breeze (Betty Belarosky/Belray), John Michael Hersey (Joe Belarosky/Rex Rogers), Gretchen Poole (Mary Belarosky), Alexis Myles (Joy Jones/Love Jones/Sensation), Kennedy Jazz (Gladys Weeks/LoveJones), Christen Dekie (Dianne/LoveJones/Sensation/Skater), Alexandra Welch (Zipgun/Belray), Kalia Lay (Connie Anderson/Belray), Aigner Mizzelle (Loretta Jones), Brenna Sheridan Brown(Operator/Peanut Gal/Ensemble), Lydia Stinson (Operator/Peanut Gal/Ensemble), Sharina Doyle (Sensation/Ensemble), Carleton King (Sam The Beat understudy).

Co-composers Valerie Ghent and Gary Schreiner; music director and piano by Gary Schreiner; drums, Charlie Caldarola; bass, Gary Frazier; set design by Lytza Colon and Mark Marcante; Choreography by Jeremy Lardieri;Costume and prop design by Susan Hemley; lighting design by Alexander Bartenieff; technical/sound design by Alex Santullo; stage manager Dylan Vaughan Skorish; assistant stage manager Paul Levine; board operator Megan Horan; production crew Julie Davis, Ellery Pierce and Lauren Monsanto; Press Rep Jonathan Slaff; Graphic design by Erikka James.

Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street), NYC 10003 Crystal Field director.
Presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 17, 2019. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm $15 general admission, $12 seniors/students, $10 groupsRecommended for ages 10 and up. Show’s website: www.bettyandthebelrays.com TNC Box office: 212-254-1109 and 212-475-0108, www.theaterforthenewecity.net Buy tickets: SMARTTIX 212-868-4444, www.smarttix.comFor group Sales contact: Jon Weber, jon@theaterforthenewcity.net. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes.