Gender, Race and August Wilson at Heart of Hartford Stage’s Current Production

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Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

By Karen Isaacs

An aging actress and the young woman who will perform her controversial work, “Naked Wilson” are at the center of Pearl Leage’s comedy Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous at Hartford Stage through Sunday, Feb. 6.

The actress, Anna has returned to the US from Amsterdam where she has lived for 25 years. She left the US after the “Naked Wilson” theater piece she devised and performed became the subject of controversy. Now, she has returned to Atlanta to, she thinks, perform the piece for the last time at a new arts festival.

The trouble is the producer only means to honor Anna for her career, and has hired a young woman to be the performer.

The controversial piece, you see, is a series of monologues from August Wilson plays and is performed in the nude. The monologues are from only the male characters which dominate Wilson’s plays – from Fences, to Piano Lesson, to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

Perhaps you can guess at the complications; Anna signed the contract without reading the fine print; she hopes for a triumphant return to the American stage followed by a tour of monologues from drama’s great female characters – Lady MacBeth, Hedda Gabler and more. Her finances need replenishment.

It is up to her trusted friend and assistant Betty to figure out how to break the news to her and get her to agree. Betty works with the producer of this new festival, Kate to accomplish this.

One of the problems with this work is that Kate, who met Anna and Betty when she was a college student 25 years ago, seems unprepared to create and produce a festival. She is not a beginner in the arts, and in fact, runs a business, so her lack of awareness of potential problems seems naïve, to say the least.

She also has had difficulty finding an actress to do the piece. Part of it is the nudity, but another part is that August Wilson is highly revered, and this work can be seen as critical of his focus on the male characters and the message that the women are meant to support and sacrifice for them.

Pete, the “actress” Kate has hired, has no acting experience, doesn’t know anything about Wilson and is an adult entertainer.

Anna reluctantly agrees to meet Pete only to be horrified at the young woman’s lack of theater awareness. Yet Pete challenges Anna and in fact questions why Anna didn’t focus on the women in the plays.

As this is a comedy of sorts, of course, there is a rapprochement between Anna and Pete.

Cleage touches on multiple issues in this work including ageism (Anna is too old to be seen naked), feminism and issues within the African American community concerning the role of women.

Susan V. Booth has directed with a sure hand aided by some fine performances and a gorgeous set by Collette Pollard. It is a hotel suite in Atlanta with its own terrace. Who wouldn’t want to stay there?

The cast is led by Terry Burrell as Anna. Burrell minimized the “diva” aspects of the character and also the possible anger. After all, Anna has been ignored by the American theater community for decades. Burrell gives Anna a softness that often reduces opportunities for laughs. She seems to accept the situation too easily.

As her friend and business manager Betty, Marva Hicks was hard to hear on opening night. I lost too many of her lines; it may have been a sound or mic issue that has been resolved. I hope so, since Betty is the stereotype Thelma Ritter character from old movies. A little acerbic and very observant.

As Kate, Cynthia D. Barker has a difficult job in making this character seem plausible. She does best, but it is hard to believe that she wouldn’t be aware of potential problems.

Shakirah Demeiser is Pete. Again the character borders on the street-wise stereotype rather than a fully developed person. You need to know more about her, but that is the fault of the playwright, not the performer.

Angry, Audacious & Shamelessly Gorgeous is pleasant and mildly humorous. You will find it enjoyable, even if it doesn’t break new ground.

I would love to see Cleage explore the issue of August Wilson’s view of African American women in more depth.

For tickets visit HartfordStage.org.

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