by Lee Pierre
“Date Night,” a humorous faith-based play performed at the Tabernacle of Praise Church of Christ located on South Main Street in Rocky Mount, VA. The setting, a room in a nicely furnished home gave no indication of how date night would fit into the performance. The Saturday afternoon show opened to a full house of which Roanoke native Evangelist Dana Franklin Pannell was overwhelmed, to say the least, by the marvelous turnout informing all, “This is where you’re supposed to be!”
Pannell, the winner of the 2004 Billboard Magazine World International Songwriter’s Competition Contemporary Gospel category, began her writing career in the late eighties. She has written numerous plays however “Date Night” was her first writing since the death of her daughter, Tawanika Denise Pannell, who died on New Year’s Eve of 2017.
After a technical interruption, the show proceeded to truly entertain those who were fortunate enough to be in attendance. Pannell wrote and directed the musical play. Her creative artistic musings were apparent in the score, also written by Pannell. Her musical director Rico Gill, the band, and the background singers all did an outstanding job keeping the music and cues flowing precisely.
The play brings light to mental health in the Black church and the dynamics of grief if left untreated. The production featured Pannell as Nettie, the main character. Nettie, experiencing the recent loss of her husband Robert, suffers through the grief of her loss taking the audience on an invigorating ride with her through the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The prelude has an emotional opening as Nettie sings “I Can’t Breathe,” describing her feelings regarding her loss. As she settles on the couch with a bottle of spirits, wallowing in her sorrow and fighting an invincible foe, a vast array of visitors arrives with the hopes of helping her.
Each actor is worth noting, as they add tidbits of spiritual messages and impeccable comedic timing. The sole purpose of all is to try to get Nettie to return to the church and seek help for what she is experiencing. The missionary ladies, played by Joanne Carter and Krystal Ramsey, are the first to come bringing with them church gossip and blessings. “They say they’re on a mission for God, but they just want to assume the position,” Missionary Jo-Jo (Carter) tells Nettie who forcibly shows them the door.
Others that interrupt her pity party include Herbert Coles Jr. ; a homeless man seeking food and warm clothing and her incarcerated brother (Jerome Buckner) calling collect asking for a visit and for her to put money on his books. These visitors all appear during the first act ensuing hilarity as well as a strong faith.
After a brief intermission, her estranged sister, Delores (Kathleen Beane-Claytor), stops by reminding Nettie to ‘accept God’s will or turn bitter.’ A very emotional song, “Keeping it Real” sung by Pannell dug deep into the hearts of the audience evident by the tissues that appeared. Ramsey also belted out a solo that took those in attendance back to church.
The visit from Missionary Galloway and pastor, played by Barbara Sanders and Rev. Brian Witcher, was both spiritual and hilarious as Nettie’s antics were as comical as those of comedian Carol Burnett.
Nettie finally faces her invincible foe, God, and has to put on “her big girl boots” and decide what she was going to do with her life accentuated by a recap presented to her by God.
Alva Enoch of Roanoke stated how much she enjoyed the show. “I especially liked how she had a revelation about all that had happened.”
Most of the attendees stated that they weren’t sure what to expect however they came mainly to support Pannell. Throughout the play, messages were dropped regarding seeking mental health (Mosaic Counseling Services), caring for the elderly, and helping the homeless (RAMS House). Everyone should see this performance, especially during this time of the year when family gatherings remind you of those who are no longer here.
And, yes, the title “Date Night” was explained however it’s worth seeing the performance to find out on your own.