Review: Paper Mill Playhouse’s ‘Gun & Powder’ Tackles Complex Themes With Ease

by Phyllis Mirabella

The Paper Mill Playhouse was buzzing on Sunday, April 14. I was struck how the pre-show crowd had this heightened energy on this beautiful spring evening; it matched the play perfectly.  “Gun & Powder” delivers a powerful tale set against the backdrop of America’s complex history. With its fascinating storyline, energetic performances, and soul-stirring music, this production makes a huge impact on its audience.

“Gun & Powder” is inspired by the true story of Mary (Ciara Renee) and Martha Clarke (Liisi LaFontaine): African American twin sisters who passed for White and were outlaws. They go on a daring adventure to challenge racial injustice in the American South. They leave their loving mother, Tallulah Clarke (Jeannette Bayardelle) in hopes of gaining money to settle their mother’s sharecropper debt and save her home.

Set in Post-Emancipation Texas (1893), the sisters, armed with a revolver and mounds of determination, struggle to find their place in society, and they confront difficult choices. When Mary Clarke falls in love with Jesse Whitewater (Hunter Parrish), a wealthy white man, Mary and Martha’s bonds of sisterhood are tested. Mary and Jesse get married, much to Martha’s devastating dismay.

The ensuing events, including a harrowing wedding scene, are fast paced and filled with enthralling music. The blend of musical genres flawlessly fuses elements of traditional musical theater with contemporary themes and hip-hop-infused melodies. The result is a fresh and vibrant sound that resonates with audiences of all backgrounds.

The cast delivers standout performances. Notably, Elijah (Aaron James McKensie), Martha’s love interest, does a beautiful job of showing his love, yet is pragmatic and fully understands Martha’s struggle; she does not follow him north. Sissy (Aurelia Williams) and Flo (Zonya Love), the Boneyard’s (hotel & saloon) maids are absolutely wonderful. They know exactly who and what the Sisters Clarke are and their dialogue and musical pieces are filled with important life lessons and humor alike.  The Kinfolk (ensemble) do a wonderful job of mixing the seriousness of the Sisters Clarke struggles and humor.  

Overall, “Gun & Powder” is a must-see theatrical experience that leaves a lasting impression on its audience. With its outstanding performances, powerful music, and thought-provoking themes, it serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love to overcome even the greatest of obstacles.

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