Fort Worth — Real life met In Real Life for the opening night audience at Jubilee Theatre, who had the fun of watching playwright Charlayne Woodard (that’s her in the fourth row!) watch her own memories, in her own words, come to life onstage.
If that made actress Ebony Marshall-Oliver nervous—she plays the young Charlayne and everyone else in the one-woman play—her exuberant and funny performance didn’t show it. But again, this is her third rodeo: she also starred in Jubilee’s well-reviewed 2012 and 2013 productions of Pretty Fire and Neat, Woodard’s first two memory plays about her growing-up years in New York and Georgia.
Ms. Woodard has had a wide-ranging career both as playwright (Flight, The Night Watcher) and actress, including a recurring role as “Sister Peg” on Law & Order SVU and film roles in Sunshine State, Unbreakable and The Crucible. In New York, she starred in Suzan Lori-Parks’ In the Blood (winning an Obie Award) and Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, and in George C. Wolfe’s Public Theater production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
In Real Life tells the next part of Charlayne’s story, following the young actress to New York City in the late 1970s. Trained in classical theater, she’s ready for roles written by Shakespeare and Chekhov. No musicals, please!
We know how most “life plans” turn out—so it’s no surprise that her first big break is exactly what she doesn’t want: an all-dancing, all-singing part in the hit 1978 musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.
“God protects babies and fools,” Charlayne remembers her grandmother saying. “And in my twenties, I was both.”
From start to finish, Woodard’s script is a standout for its heightened, often poetical stream-of-consciousness style—the fast-thinking, fast-talking rat-a-tat voice of an eager young spirit. Naïve Charlayne may be, but she’s full of strength and will, qualities she needs in spades to survive the outrageous pace of Broadway, which takes her down to “96 pounds of nothing but nerves.”
Marshall-Oliver would be a perpetual-motion dynamo as Charlayne alone—but there’s more. She fills the stage space with other vivid portrayals, moving so quickly among characters that we stop noticing the smooth-as-silk transformations and just enjoy the voices: hilarious imitations of famous co-stars Nell Carter and Andre De Shields; the Jamaican lilt of a friend; the New York blat of an agent; her grandmother’s strong Southern voice; her new friend Elena’s “I’ve got a plan” certainty. And always, the loving, sensible voice of boyfriend Harris—who seems to know exactly who she is. “Play well with the other children,” he tells her as she goes off to rehearsals; there’s a smile in his voice, but it’s something she needs to hear. (Harris was at Woodard’s side on Friday too.)
Director Tre Garrett has kept the spark and the truth of Woodard’s storytelling—what poet Langston Hughes called “the boogie-woogie rumble of a dream”—and set designer Michael Pettigrew’s ziggurat stack of stone blocks, whose contours are a riff on his design for Neat, gives us a hint of the sleek Manhattan skyline.
For sure, there’ve been plenty of plays about breaking into showbiz. But there can’t be too many that include sketchy Rastafarian rituals…a bathtub in the kitchen of a New York apartment…diva Nell Carter yelling “Battle stations, Miss Thang!”…and needing a sign (“NOT going to Harlem”) to catch a cab—even when you’re a Tony-nominated young star.
Add some lively dancing and a few Fats Waller tunes (“Black and Blue,” “How Ya Baby,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”) enlivened by David Lanza’s sound and Nikki DeShea Smith’s lighting, and well, we have to say it:
Over at Jubilee, the joint is jumpin’. It’s really jumpin’.
Don’t know about you, but I’m ready for more of the story. Ms. Woodard?