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A CurtainUp Review
by Brad Bradley
As the house lights dim, we hear a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, words as uttered four decades ago during the height of this nation's civil rights struggle: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything." His now long-historic speech is being heard in our 21st century, on the anniversary of King's death, and Birdie Blue, in a nostalgic reverie at her home on the south side of Chicago, responds to the 36-year-old recorded broadcast almost as if she is responding to her own charismatic preacher in a church service in progress. Soon, time moves backwards several years, and not long later, even decades, with some action taking place in Birdie Blue's youth half a century ago. Because we learn early of her most troubling setbacks involving her current husband Jackson's progressively debilitating dementia (Alzheimer's disease is implied), her only child's long ago disappearance and subsequent prison sentence, and her first husband's much earlier disappearance, the play (unlike the oft-quoted line from Hamlet) is really not the thing here. Of far more importance to playwright West is the impressionistic creation of her title character's warm-hearted and expansive personality as seen in her very active dream world or in real-life events like the planning of a country excursion or the preparation of a birthday cake. Her resilient ability to cope becomes far more important than life's events themselves. In fact, she as frequently talks to the audience as if it were a neighborly guest as she speaks to the other characters we see. She never leaves the stage, and there are many pages of the text in which our heroine is the only speaker.
For all the deliberate looseness of structure and lack of suspense, director Seret Scott has wisely capitalized on every shard of character development. She gives each performer maximum opportunity to convey the variety and change of their personalities.
As the decaying husband Jackson, Charles Weldon spends much of the play in bed as an invalid. (Birdie Blue tells us "I can't ever let him see me cry.") He does, however, have a few moments in flashback to show both the earlier stages of his decay as an absent-minded school crossing guard (already, though, in his wife's mind, he is "the walkin' dead") and, more refreshingly, their courtship and early marriage when his vibrant spirit and dancing feet both were in high gear. The versatile Billy Porter is given a far more expansive palette on which to act and sing, not only as Birdie Blue's only child Bam at various ages, but also as three other people of decidedly different stripes. One of these nominally is an odd neighbor boy, Little Pimp. This cross-dressing youth suffers from domestic abuse as well as a gender-identity crisis. Amazingly, he not only maintains a rich spirit, but also fills a significant void for Birdie Blue in a time of crisis. Both these minor characters, while written only as caricatures, in Porter's hands briefly fill the stage as compelling personalities. Porter also is successful with two other utterly flamboyant characters, Sook and Minerva, Birdie Blue's brother and sister, respectively.
Unusually, Birdie Blue herself is our passionate and tender friend from the start, and the love between character and audience never wavers. By play's end, Birdie tells us that, like Dr. King, she already "has seen the mountaintop" and she is as ready for life's end as was he. Her end will, of course, be considerably more private. Her alliterative name, by the way, does not ring true. While this woman does experience "the blues" in abundance, her miseries never quell her positive appreciation of life's better side.
Set designer Anna Louizos has conveyed time, place, and mood superbly with realistic areas surrounded by incomplete frames and other fragmented elements. Emilio Sosa's apt costumes likewise reinforce the look and feel of the people at hand, a necessity for Mr. Porter in particular as he deftly shifts character, age, and even gender countless times over the course of the evening.
While all three performers in this staging are excellent in vividly embodying their characters even more fully than written, this production is primarily Ms. Merkerson's shining hour (and a quarter). For never a moment do we lose our belief in Birdie Blue, our compassion for her assorted misfortunes, or our ability to share her joy of living even in spite of a never-ending cycle of trying circumstances. This towering talent, while fortunate enough to have enjoyed playing a substantial continuing character on a popular television drama for more than a decade (Law and Order), has been underused on local stages and easily could have been an asset to recent productions such as A Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean, or even the color-blind On Golden Pond. One is even given to wonder about the possibility of finding her in a color-blind edition of the aforementioned Williams classic. That said, a talent of this level should be offered Euripedes' Medea, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, or Ibsen's Ghosts, to name only a few appropriate classics. Let's hope some bold producers, directors, and perhaps even active playwrights are ready when Law and Order closes its last case. The optimistic sky of starlight projected at this performance's end is meant for Birdie Blue, but those stars shine as much for the luminous Ms. Merkerson.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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