Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Theater review: Pretty Fire at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth
Pretty Fire shows that our normal lives are not so different and we all have a story to tell.
Charlayne Woodard is a storyteller. Her stories are about childhood but they also fulfill a need, forgotten in a time of immediate media coverage, that storytelling has met throughout human history. Stories entertain but also convey our shared history and create discussion about larger meanings and morals in society. Pretty Fire is Charlayne's story.
Jubilee Theatre brings Woodard's Pretty Fire to Fort Worth under the direction of Artistic Director Tre Garrett (playing through February 26), and creates an environment for listening that makes it easy to focus on meanings while enjoying the story.
The story begins with Charlayne's birth as a preemie in Albany, New York and carries her through childhood there, with occasional trips to Dixie where her grandparents live in Savannah, Georgia. Throughout her childhood she is faced with ridicule, racism and cross-burning hatred, yet she discovers the folks in her life are loving and supportive and tough. This is not the gritty high-conflict story of poverty and the inner-city ghetto we often see in TV news and movies; rather it is the story most of us share growing up in flawed but loving families, which provide the tools we need to become strong adults.
Ebony Marshall-Oliver is a storyteller and a solo performer perfect for this story. She takes on the responsibility of telling the story in a thoroughly entertaining, insightful and memorable way. She delivers in a smooth, comfortable style, flipping easily between characters in her life, playing the audience like an old-time preacher, a child telling a story about her day or a grandmother talking about the old times. She covers the years playing each age skillfully, conveying the joys of childhood with the relish of a child, and yet entering the dark moments with the wisdom of an elder. The audience can howl with tears one minute and seconds later be wiping tears of sadness because she allows us to take the journey with her.
Marshall-Oliver is a powerful vocalist with skillful breath control that allows her to push her energy through the audience. She has a song voice that tells you, in the opening seconds, this is a big story. Her singing reveals her inclusion in the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Seussical the Musical as the powerfully-voiced Sour Kangaroo. You feel her soulful power wash over you.
A student of acting cannot help but admire the physical instrument Marshall-Oliver brings to this story. She uses the full stage with a carefully-controlled high-energy flow that involves her whole body, dancing, jumping, hopping, and writhing on the floor, flying around the stage, connecting through gesture to the audience. It's a visceral experience. When she delivers lines directly to people on the front rows, the whole audience feels it. She is at once playful and lighthearted and deadly serious.
It's fun to be part of this audience. Its part old-time religion, part comedy club, part grandma's house and part Broadway show. We laughed ‘til we cried and cried ‘til we could laugh again. I have seldom been part of an audience that so fully became part of the show. With its call and response atmosphere, Marshall-Oliver, the ageless storyteller, captures her audience and never let’s go. Several people around me were seeing this for the third time.
Tre Garett's direction and Michael Pettigrew's set design creates a simple visual background that allows Marshall-Oliver to play with the space while filling in the details of her life. Lighting by Nikki DeShea Smith is so subtle you don't notice them lighting her perfectly as she glides around the stage while hinting at little lighting effects that emphasize parts of the story visually. David Lanza creates a gentle sound track that sets the tone for the '60s and '70s, filling in sound effects perfectly timed to her action, sometimes backing her songs with music, then creating silence to let her pure voice thrill you. It does.
It's normal for an audience to anticipate the big gotcha in a story about life, especially about black life in America where major events may define a child's life, often negatively. Pretty Fire has shocking events but they are not the big events. Rather Charlayne's small day-to-day experiences are important to her. By American standards her life is normal, yet it's how she learns from her normal experiences that defines her most powerfully. Marshall-Oliver's skill at sharing Charlayne's story tells us we have a shared biography, that our normal lives are not so different and we all have a story to tell.
Charlayne Woodard experiences the life most American children live, filled with fears and joys, shaped by our families and communities. Hurtful comments, bigotry and violence are the gotchas in a normal life but they're balanced by the love and support of our families. Ebony Marshall-Oliver shows us a childhood we can identify with. We saw things that shocked us, questioned what we were told to believe, and allowed the answers to form our character. To the credit of Charlayne's family, she honed these experiences into a career as a storyteller who can relate life's lessons and help us recognize ourselves.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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