Fort Worth — Trey Anthony’s play Da Kink in My Hair generated buzz in 2001 as a one-woman show when first staged as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival in Canada. A resident of the greater Toronto area, Anthony originally set the show in the Ontario capital. Later the setting was changed to Brooklyn, which has a vibrant West Indian presence.
The one-woman show grew into a multiple-character play with original music by E. Markus Harper, Carol Maillard (of Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Michael McElroy. Later it was developed as a Canadian television show. This Jubilee Theatre production that closed its 2019-2020 season and was presented for online streaming, was directed and choreographed by JuNene K with musical direction by Steven A. Taylor.
Da Kink in My Hair is a themed piece about black women that mirrors life and its rollercoaster emotionality. The monologues stitched together with songs center around am I good enough, am I beautiful, and can I be loved.
The principal character, Novelette “Letty” (Shaundra Norwood) is a Jamaican-born beauty salon owner/operator with a kind of magical or quasi-telepathic ability to release the deeply protected thoughts of her customers through simply touching their hair. Believing a woman’s character resides in her hair, she wants each to leave with a stronger sense of self. Norwood is the only actor to maintain a Jamaican accent throughout the play.
Each character represents a certain lived experience of squelched issues surrounding identity and self.
Nia Gilligan (Whitney Latrice Coulter) is damaged from the colorism in her family which taught her the world prefers light-skinned women without tightly coiled hair. Patsy (JuNene K), who is scarred from the murder of her son, is soaking her pain in her religious convictions. Miss Enid (Crystal Williams) finds senior love next door. Sherelle (Kris Black Jasper) struggles to become visible in a white corporate male environment while being expected to support her family.
Aspiring actor Sharmaine (Deon Q. Sanders), also colorism scratched, watched her list of friends dwindle after she came out as lesbian.
Suzy (Rebecca Luby) is the white character wracked with guilt over the moment she chose keeping her racist father’s love over protecting her black son. Luby makes her discomfortingly real, hard to do especially now against the current backdrop of so much overt racism and terroristic acts.
Stacey-Anne (Angela Spivery) tells a story of incestuous statutory rape from her pre-teen years. This is perhaps the best written of the monologues because of its rhythm and cadence. Spivery pulls the audience in and then odd lighting happens which leaves her face practically in the dark, lighting instead her chest and arms.
Lighting is very important to a piece such as the ones that move in and out of the character’s interior world. Nikki Deshea’s lighting design often obscures the faces while they are delivering important lines, sometimes while other characters are lit upstage for no apparent reason.
The monologues are the substance of the play, in a way suggestive of Ntozake Shange’s approach in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
There were too many line stumbles to ignore and a couple of the monologues felt rushed, but overall the actors brought to life the stories and situations that are recognizable and relatable to many women, in particular black women. The actors’ entertaining work had hiccups during the ensemble numbers. It is there where disruption occurred during the songs through harmonies lacking in confidence amid a lottery of pitches.
Da Kink in My Hair is a story with some structural kinks of its own but those could have been mitigated through innovational direction. Less choreography and more stage movement might have removed the sense of awkwardness during those transitions and wandering crosses across the stage.
Actors sometimes appeared to be uncertain of what they should be doing, or of why they were doing it. If this happens once or with one actor, it belongs at the feet of the actor. When it is across the cast, responsibility resides with the person guiding the piece.
One of the beautiful things about being the director is choice without rewriting the script or destroying the playwright’s intent. One can decide whether it is a good idea to have a baptism in a hair salon complete with a white cloth mimicking the basin or tub. One can decide whether it is a good idea in a show about black women’s hair to have so many straight wigs, or to have some of the women look not too much different when they leave from when they entered. The whole point of a hair salon visit is transformation. No transformation, no joy.
Theatrical production companies are grappling with how to best survive, responsibly, during this unimaginably anxiety laden time. Jubilee decided to mount a live performance — they mostly rehearsed via Zoom, and then when rehearsing in the space, masks and frequent temperature checks were required.
They were unmasked for the performance that was filmed (without an audience), which is too bad. This was an opportunity to lead the way forward into an uncertain theatrical future by demonstrating how to mount certain pieces live and safely. Anthony’s script is one that could have been performed using masks and gloves because of the setting. It is not uncommon for hair stylists to choose to wear gloves because of the various products used. It is not rare for hair stylists to choose to wear masks either, though that is less common in hair salons than in nail salons. If there was ever a play which could pull in the protocols recommended for us during a pandemic, this is that play.
Although the performance used social distancing for most of it, seeing the actors occasionally in close contact, touching each other—one character appears to give another one a peck on the cheek—was for this reviewer, disconcerting in that it interrupted what could have been a seamless engagement in the story.
All things considered, there is enough realism and relatability to please audiences, which is why Da Kink in My Hair remains such a hit.
» Da Kink in My Hair streamed for a limted time; Jubilee Theatre will soon announce its 2020-21 season, in which all of the shows will be streamed (with live performances resuming at some point in 2021).