Buy Photo

Photo courtesy of Leon Jones

Phrederic Semaj has the leading role in “The Good Negro” as the Rev. James Lawrence, a character patterned on Martin Luther King.

Conductor John Biller and the Bakersfield Winds are ready to puff up our patriotic feelings with their annual pre-Independence Day concert on Monday at Olive Drive Church.

I've attended several of their patriotic concerts and for me, the most stirring moment -- the kind that often brings a few tears to my eyes --is the band's performance of the "Armed Forces Salute."

And in a recent phone conversation with Biller I was glad to hear him say, "We'll do it again this year."

This particular arrangement by Bob Lowden is a medley of songs that signify all four branches of the military. The narrator, Ed Hughes, asks audience members who have served or are serving, to stand as their branch's song is played. And there's usually a good response.

The band, which started on an informal basis, now has about 40 members and performs three concerts a year.

"In the beginning it was just a bunch of musicians who love to play," Biller said. "It was kind of like putting together a garage band and now this is our 10th year going on 11."

Many, if not most, are teachers either in public schools or who give private lessons, and several are members of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. Biller teaches at Stockdale High School and is music minister at Rosedale Bible Church.

"It's a wonderful group to work with," he said. "And one of the most phenomenal things is they don't get paid."

In telling me about the program to be played on Monday evening, the conductor made note of one well-known piece that some people think should be our national anthem.

"We're playing a very pretty (version) of 'America the Beautiful' arranged by Carmen Dragon," he said. "It's beautiful, over the top with lush harmonies and key changes added to it."

The program begins with the "Star- Spangled Banner," and ends with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

In between are Alan Silvestri's "Captain America March"; "National Emblem" by Edwin Eugene Bagley; "A Tribute to Stephen Foster" by Sammy Nestico; "Appalachian Morning" by Robert Sheldon; "Dixieland Jam" arranged by Lowden; and Sousa's "Semper Fidelis."

As in the past, admission to the concert is free, but a donation of $5 helps to pay expenses.

Civil rights dramatized

"The Good Negro" is a dramatization of the personal stories of three black leaders as they carried out their public roles in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s in the midst of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, FBI wiretaps and marital infidelity.

The play, by Tracey Scott Wilson, will be performed twice on Saturday at the Fox Theater with a nine-member cast directed by Michael Phillip Edwards. In a recent phone conversation, Bakersfield resident Leon Jones said he also appears in the show as a singer and bass player in the onstage band.

"It is mostly a drama but there are professional musicians and singers accompanying certain parts," he said. "The (action) doesn't stop but the spotlight's on the singers."

Two locally based musicians, guitarist Derrell Crooks and Darren Gholston, saxophone, also are in the band, along with a keyboard player and drummer from Los Angeles.

First produced in Dallas in 2010, "The Good Negro" has been performed at The Public Theater in New York, the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and at the Hudson Mainstage in Santa Monica and the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood.

A Chicago critic described the play as "very realistic in tone and (with) obvious parallels to the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr."

Phrederic Semaj has the leading role as the Rev. James Lawrence, a character patterned on King. T'Keyah Crystal Keyman appears as his wife.

In the opening scene, a young woman is arrested and beaten for taking her child into a "whites only" restroom in a Birmingham department store.

As the play progresses, it's apparent that her action was not accidental. Instead, it was staged by civil rights leaders who wanted a demonstration that put the focus on a "good Negro," meaning a black person who was attractive, educated and well-spoken.

Musical at Harvey

Although you're more likely to see Jill Burdick and Frank Sierra onstage, this weekend they'll be behind the scenes as co-directors of Disney's "Little Mermaid."

In addition to acting, Burdick is noted for her vocal skills, Sierra for his choreography. Both recently appeared in "My Way" at Stars.

Their "Mermaid" cast of 5- to 13- year-olds are members of the Stars School of Performing Arts and they have been practicing for the Bakersfield Music Theatre production since June 3.

"I love watching them, seeing how they learn to work together as a team," Burdick said. "It's really cool."

Each student is given a copy of his or her lines plus a CD to take home to practice, usually with plenty of encouragement from moms and dads.

"Parents are crucial," she said, adding with laughter in her voice, "It takes a village, you know."

Based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, "The Little Mermaid Jr." is an adaptation of Disney's stage and film productions.

Set in a magical kingdom under the sea, it's the story of Ariel, a beautiful mermaid played by Leora Timpson, who longs to live in the world above. But to do so, she has to make a deal with the evil sea witch Ursula, portrayed by Britta Lowery, and convince J.R. Camarillo, in his role as Prince Eric, that she's the girl with the enchanting voice.

Cast members sing the lyrics backed by recorded instrumental music, and Burdick said the show includes three songs that aren't in the film version.

Others in lead roles are Logan Burdick as Sebastian and Nathan Armendariz as Flounder. Assisting the directors are Mary Bellah and Hannah DiMolfetto. Jeny Sanchez and Sara Tielsch are in charge of costumes.

Burdick's career in theater began 23 years ago at Bakersfield College with a small role in Kern Shakespeare Festival's "The Tempest." The following year she played Juliet. Since then she's appeared in dozens of local productions and has also been a member of the Gaslight Melodrama Theater's company.

With children of her own, she's also been involved in one way or another with plenty of youth productions, including "The Little Mermaid."

"I think I've seen it ('Mermaid') about 30 times and I can't get over how much I enjoy it," she said. "I still love it."