A Winning Hand

Clear the decks for Four Queens - No Trump.

The scene is Deola's dog-grooming salon, where Deola is also setting herself up as a psychic. Three of her friends meet here weekly to play bid whist, and on this occasion they are joined by a fourth, Edna, a newly divorced friend of Deola's from Texas. Much of the first act revolves around the game, apparently a tradition in many African-American circles -- a raucous, competitive, high-spirited tradition that calls for equal parts aggression and finesse, as well as a genius for bluff. On the night I attended this Shadow Theatre production, a nearby audience member was clearly a player. She cheered certain moves and sighed over others; she offered instruction. And though the actors never responded directly to her or to any other audience comment, that's the kind of evening it was, with everyone enjoying each other -- both off stage and on. It felt like a particularly successful party, the sort where all the men are handsome and the women sexy, and every word out of every mouth is the most fascinating thing you've ever heard.

Sure, the script for Four Queens - No Trump has a few weaknesses, but it's also funny and good-natured, and writer-director Ted Lange (of Love Boat fame) has assembled a group of high-spirited divas to perform it. Divas. Queens. Goddesses. These are terms I usually dislike, but there's no avoiding them here, and Lange seems to have given his actresses a lot of direction as well as a lot of leeway to play and improvise. If the current queen of England were half as much fun as these women, the monarchy wouldn't be in jeopardy.

The action begins as Deola, played by Emily M. Bates, sets up for the game, dancing with her card table, reserving special attention for her own canary-yellow chair. Enter big, bold Maude, who drives a red Porsche and has a thing for jazz musicians -- their lips, you know. Maude is played by Ghandia Johnson, who created a hurricane of feverish blogging during her appearance on Survivor: Thailand a few years back. As she prances across the stage, you can see why: The woman overflows with energy, lustiness and the kind of chutzpah that says, "I am the center of the universe, and if you don't like it, feel free to get off."

Simone St. John (from left), Emily M. Bates, Adrienne 
Martin-Fullwood and Ghandia Johnson rule in Four 
Queens - No Trump.
Simone St. John (from left), Emily M. Bates, Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and Ghandia Johnson rule in Four Queens - No Trump.

Maude is followed by Jocena, a tighter-wound Simone St. John, who's wearing a flamboyant outfit and toting bags from a couple of exclusive stores. And finally we get Edna, the country cousin who professes to know nothing about bid whist and sits meekly through the others' explanations before proceeding to demolish them all. The sly humor with which Adrienne Martin-Fullwood accomplishes this -- smiling sweetly, humming tunelessly for long, long stretches while the others hover like vultures, doing a triumphant dance when she wins -- has to be seen.

Deola is full of new-age wisdom, and Bates makes the babble about crystals and premonitions so humorous and warmhearted that you want to believe every loopy word -- particularly when, later in the play, she tells poor Jocena, who has finally come completely undone, never to forget that she's a queen: "You walk as royalty." She's also capable of telling a razor-sharp tale about the way workers on the set of Fox Studios, where her husband works, took their revenge on actor Bruce Willis for a comment he made about their pay.

You know that any play featuring four women is going to cover certain topics: tight shoes, saggy breasts, food, sex and men. And though this one does, too, Lange puts his own spin on them. We learn each woman's name for her crotch, including "honeycomb" and "meow mix." Edna tells a frustrating story about sex with one of Maude's jazz-musician friends who stopped mid-thrust to jot down ideas, because, he said at the time, "Our rhythms have tapped my muse." And while any fictional girl gathering includes talk about chocolate, there's never been anything like Deola's sung explanation of the origin of chitlins.

Things get less interesting when the conversation turns serious. Edna falls for a high school history teacher, Jefferson, but she's afraid to continue the relationship because he's from the same small Texas town where her grandmother was raped, beaten and permanently injured in the 1920s, and she feels that his relatives must have been involved. This is moving but a little contrived, as are the words with which Jefferson reassures her. Kurt Soderstrom gives a solid performance in this two-dimensional role, but we've been enjoying the dynamic between the women so much that it's hard not to see him as an intruder. As always, Michael R. Duran does wonders with the set, despite the constrictions of the space.

All in all, this is a party you don't want to miss.

 
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