LETTERS TO EDITOR
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In Real Life
by Laura Hitchcock
She's ba-a-a-ck! The charismatic dynamic Charlayne Woodard is delivering the latest installment of her life in a performance whose charm and power is only equaled by the impact and lyricism of her writing. Commissioned by The Mark Taper Forum, it follows Pretty Fire, whose title refers to the childhood name she gave the crosses the Ku Klux Klan burned on the lawn of her grandparents' southern home, and Neat, another girlhood memoir whose title character is her mentally limited aunt. In that remarkable piece, Woodard managed to catch both the delight and the despair of being and loving Neat.
In this work Woodard takes us backstage after she lands in New York, fresh out of college, ready to take the town by storm, armed with two suitcases, a violin called Josephine, and five serious monologues. Neither Josephine nor the monologues have much of a future in the Big Apple. When she's rejected for For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow's Not Enuf, an outraged Woodard roars I've been black all my life! and starts repacking those suitcases. Then she gets a call to audition for Ain't Misbehavin'. Her high school sweetheart, college classmate and live-in love Harris thinks she should go to the audition to which the Aspiring Serious Actress retorts, I think you should go to law school! Disdainfully, she shows up in a sweatshirt with the only 1940s song she knows: Auld Lang Syne. If we were lucky, we would hear her sing it every New Year's Eve. It's no surprise she gets the job and it is a surprise when My Tony goes to her co-star Nell Carter.
Woodard does a wicked Nell; Winston, a proud Rastofarian from Jamaica with skin the color of a fine cigar, who becomes eroded by cocaine; her gruff father; and many others. In addition to the show business struggles so familiar to every beginning actor, Woodard lives with racial awareness every day, such as the taxis that pass her by at night when she forgets to wear a sign saying she's not going to Harlem and Winston's aversion to independent women who make him feel like white men do. We hear her father's devastating reaction to her performance and her stricken reaction when he says of her dance number in Ain't Misbehavin', I didn't think we had to do that anymore. She takes on the race thing with common-sense courage. When Harris wants to quit his job because his boss is racist, she advises him with wry practicality to tell him your girlfriend's black and outlines the benefits he might provoke.
She does all this on a bare shadow red stage designed by John Lee Beatty where Kathy A. Perkins' lighting projections create scenes from the stage of a Broadway theatre to car lights that look like giant cats' eyes bearing down on the deminutive heroine as she rides her yellow Peugeot down Broadway. Her exuberance, her warmth, her talent and joie de vivre are an armor of light in this sorry world and she'd better be back soon to show us the way her way.