The texture and nature of intimacy is the texture and substance of Shay Youngblood's potent Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery at Eulipions Theatre. The story about a twelve-year-old girl and the eight "Big Mamas" who raised her reveals the hidden threads women sometimes weave into a community. Many of the plot complications are peculiar to African-American culture, but Youngblood's stories about coming of age and the triumph of generosity over pettiness are universal.
The title is a line taken from the play that, in retrospect, carries with it the force of prophecy: The whole evening shakes up complacencies and drains some of the worst of society's psychic sores. The wise women of the play have their own methods of healing, most of them way outside the mainstream of medical practice, and somehow the play itself has a healing effect on the viewer. Youngblood's graceful language never indulges cliches, solipsism or any other meagerness of spirit. Yet there is plenty of anger--and all of it justified.
The character known as Daughter enters, a grown woman now, and sits in the rocking chair of Big Mama, whose daily care is her most important and warming influence. The house is empty around her, and as she begins her story, she tells us that she was raised in this house by eight of the wisest women who ever saw the light of day. As Daughter introduces each of the eight women from her past, she removes her hat and coat and becomes the young girl whose "first blood" has just arrived. She revisits the all-important summer of her preparation for womanhood, which will conclude with the rite of passage referred to as "going to the river."
Throughout the play, each of her mamas tells a story that teaches Daughter something important about being a black woman. From slave days to the Montgomery bus boycott, she hears of women who have defied insults, violence and oppression from white society. Yet the righteous indignation never expresses itself in petty hatred. And while there is a feminist thread running through the play, Youngblood never gives in to political posturing. Daughter is warned about men's callousness and exhorted to sisterly solidarity, but the warnings come naturally, in the course of daily events.
Director Dwayne Carrington expertly orchestrates the ensemble cast. He uses African music and dance selectively, but the women's more recent American heritage is really the focus of Daughter's life, and Carrington is careful to emphasize details of dress and movement that make her history immediate and lively. He keeps the set simple, yet each of the three rooms on stage--kitchen, living room and bedroom--are given forceful metaphorical meaning.
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It's not easy for an adult to play a child, but VanNessa Howard turns in a marvelously restrained performance as Daughter--she gets the innocence right, as well as the mischievousness. Roslyn Washington as Big Mama is the still point in this turning world, and her quiet dignity is clearly the steadying force in the child's life. If Big Mama is a powerful moral presence, Aunt Mae is its life force, and Leola Easterwood-Sanders spices Mae's earthy wisdom with a dash of naughtiness.
Aunt Mae thrives on a good argument, especially with the one character in the play who has married an African man and completely embraced her roots: LaMama. Debbie Lewis-Johnson carries herself like a queen as she spars and sparks with Aunt Mae, embodying fierce pride even when hurt and angry. Beatrice Parks gives "domestic engineer" Corine the homespun humor of a woman who sees through the pretensions of others and the absurdity of class distinctions. And Gwen Harris as the "sticky-fingered" Maggie creates a charming outlaw coaxed toward reformation by a knowing community.
This little community has gathered together out of affection and necessity, and its boundaries are permeable--men are not kept out by force. The gift each of these women gives the others is to guard and guide, heal and help each other with a generosity as authentic as it is desirable. The audience feels that generosity--and may find in it some homemade cure for what ails us all.
Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, through January 29 at Eulipions Theatre, 2425 Welton Street, 295-6814.