Back row (l to r) Takesha Meshé Kizart, Stacie Doublin, Toni Lynice Fountain. Front row (l to r) debrah neal, Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal, Melanie Loren and Sandra Watson.
By Sheri Flanders
There is a scene in SHAKIN’ THE MESS OUT OF MISERY at Pegasus Theater that violently teleported me back to my childhood. A young girl known only as Daughter hides behind a kitchen table, eavesdropping on older black women who are holding a praise circle and gossiping in the living room. She is caught, shooed away, yet stealthily returns, unable to resist the lure of Grown Folks Business.
Written 30 years ago, playwright Shay Youngblood’s work is a semi-autobiographical story constructed around vignettes about a motherless young black girl in the 1960s, traversing rites of passage through the guidance of her ‘Big Mamas’ – an assortment of dignified matriarchs; blood relatives and otherwise, who have stepped in to prepare her to adulthood. But to call this simply a collection of vignettes is to do this work an injustice. As one of the characters says to the young impatient daughter “A story isn’t like ingredients you list off a soapbox. You have to take your time.”
SHAKIN’ is a master-class in delicious storytelling, and the audience is kept as riveted as the bright-eyed Daughter, eagerly attentive as each vivid story unfurls before our eyes by a cast of eight impossibly talented black women. To have a cast of eight men on a Chicago stage is so common as to be banal. But to have a cast of eight black women in a scripted work is so unusually stunning that I spent the first third of the play afraid that a man would enter and break the spell. Thankfully, this did not come to pass.
Powerhouse actor Melanie Loren deftly and seamlessly shapeshifts between the youthful Daughter and a mature woman. SHAKIN’ is an experience; an intimate homage to the grand African tradition of oral storytelling, and we are invited to sit at the kitchen table to laugh, gossip and cry as one of the family. We follow Daughter from auntie to auntie as they prepare her to “go to the river”, teaching her lessons passed down from generation to generation, that a girl needs to know to become a woman: how to wink, how to deal with a straying spouse, the unexpected complexities of chewing tobacco, how to persevere through loss, and in a chilling scene involving a glass chandelier – how to get revenge.
The cast of SHAKIN’ weaves an intricate tapestry of black femininity, creating multi-dimensional characters who exist, yet are rarely done justice onstage. Big Mama (Felisha “Ekudayo” McNeal) is the glue that holds everything together; the shoulder to cry on, firm yet gentle. Miss Mary, a woman with a gift to peer into your future – unless you stop her first, and Miss Tom, a beautifully honest and gracefully warm portrayal of a black queer woman of a certain age (both played by Sandra Watson). We meet Miss Corrine (Stacie Doublin), the town hairdresser, who has a scene involving a pressing comb that is so visceral, it caused every black woman in the theater to suck in our breath sharply in anticipation of heat on the nape of our neck. There is Miss LaMama (Toni Lynice Fountain), steeped in African culture and garb, Miss Shine (Darian Tene), the deceptively meek Governor’s maid, and Miss Rosa (Taketa Meshé Kizart), the sultry woman that every little girl prays to grow up to be.
Miss Corrine (debrah neal) delivers one of the most difficult truths for Daughter with a voice so powerful and moving that it could wake the dead. If I have one suggestion for this show, it is to print the programs on church fans. SHAKIN’ is a religious experience, and the music and vocals are expertly and organically infused into the narrative. As each woman comes forward to sit on the front of the warm spartan stage with its graceful curved front, evoking a winding river, the simple black scrims draped with mossy vines, the audience is lulled by the waves of their gorgeous, emotional voices, and nary a dry eye is left in the house by the end.
Anyone who has a hard time understanding why an audience might be moved to exclamation during a performance has not witnessed the emotionally interactive experience of black women onstage, sharing stories and songs, inviting you to come as you are, grab a shot of whiskey and join the party. As one character recounts “The blues ain’t nothing but a good woman feeling bad.” One has to experience the blues to sing them. And one has to experience SHAKIN’ THE MESS OUT OF MISERY, a must-see touching, heartfelt valentine to the surrogate mothers that create the backbones of our communities and our lives. Do not miss this show.
SHAKIN’ THE MESS OUT OF MISERY plays Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm at Chicago Dramatists