"Pretty fire" is the shockingly inappropriate term the young Charlayne Woodard gave to the sight of a cross burning in her grandparents' front yard. It's also the name of her autobiographical one-woman show, which tells the story of how as a child she witnessed this hateful conflagration while visiting her relatives in Georgia, as well as other, happier milestones of her growing up. First performed by Woodard in Los Angeles in 1993 and now produced by the legendary Vinnette Carroll, the show, which stars South Florida actress Zuleyma Guevara, is less a solo piece than a multimedia celebration of childhood and memory.
Woodard, who starred in the 1978 Broadway premiere of Ain't Misbehavin', has said that she wrote Pretty Fire after arriving in Los Angeles in 1989 and realizing there weren't many roles for black women, no matter how talented they might be. (She's recently played a recurring character on CBS's Chicago Hope.) Fearful that her live-theater acting chops would become rusty, she created a show based on her memories of growing up in a close-knit extended family in Albany, New York, and on trips the family took to see her grandparents in rural Rosignol Hill, Georgia. Pretty Fire, which won a 1993 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award for best play and later ran off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, doesn't entirely live up to the chilling image of its title, but the current production at the Vinnette Carroll Theatre more than brings life to the spirit of Woodard's imagination.
Performed on the Vinnette Carroll's cozy stage, a former church nave, where the bare outline of a house foundation with front steps and a suspended window frame suggest a family home, the show revolves around Guevara, a lithe and appealing actress who narrates and acts the part of the young Charlayne. Of the troupe of actors and dancers who join her, foremost is Deidré Washington-Capp, who plays Charlayne's younger sister. Other characters include Charlayne's parents, her two sets of grandparents, and members of her local youth choir who witness the future actress's seduction by show biz. These people put in appearances, but Charlayne is the only one who speaks. So the show has the feel of a monologue but the look of a fully fleshed out, large-cast production, replete with musical selections, from gospel hymns to Porgy and Bess numbers.
Deftly choreographed by Eulyce Williams Eason, the dance numbers fill out the show in which the writing is thin enough to warrant some support. One gorgeous sequence, for example, "describes" the waves of pain Charlayne's mother experiences when her baby comes early. (Woodard was a preemie, weighing in at less than two pounds.) Another bewitching dance shows the two girls bathing outside their grandparents' farmhouse, the river a rippling blue cloth held by two dancers. And yet another shows her grandfather chopping wood to prepare for the baby coming home from the hospital after an 11-month stay. In the most exuberant part of the show, the dance troupe reenacts Charlayne's performances with her youth choir, drawing the audience in with a boisterous group rendition of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Pretty Fire recounts how Woodard's parents almost named her Africa, until her grandfather protested that she'd "have a hard enough time as it is" navigating life without being burdened with a foreboding name. As it happens the most compelling parts of the show describe Woodard discovering some of life's great contradictions. For example, her mother coaches her to ignore children who call her a "nigger," but she can't stomach the sound of her children singing "Dixie." Charlayne likes the tune. "Dixie meant the South, and the South meant our grandparents.... We sang 'Dixie' sotto voce." Soon enough, when the young girl gets an up-close look at the burning cross in the yard, she realizes that the fire and other aspects of Dixie are not pretty or comforting after all, but ugly.
With details like these, Woodard's memories of her family and her heritage ought to be more than enough fodder for drama, particularly in this portrait of the young actress. In one haunting sequence, Charlayne's mother pulls her daughters away from the TV set to ask them what they'd like to be when they grow up. Charlayne picks Shirley Temple, noting that she'd be able to live in a big house "with my happy Negro butler." To her mother's horror, Charlayne's little sister announces she would like to be a maid. With this keen and personal criticism of the derogatory images of African-Americans on TV, Woodard makes one of the few articulate statements in Pretty Fire, which otherwise unwinds without much structure or direction.
Despite Woodard's ear for the poetic and humorous, there are too few of these electrifying moments in the show. The second half of the play, which focuses on Woodard's foray into performing, is particularly thin and generic. I'm inclined to think that the actress would have been better served by working with an experienced writer, who might have been able to flush out the more insubstantial sections of this work with a more engaging narrative. Anyone who can come up with childhood memories that include the labeling of oaks covered with Spanish moss as "lace trees" deserves someone who can translate her images into compelling drama.
The young Charlayne's discoveries of the contradictory relationships between African-Americans and the American South are fascinating. But because they're not tightly woven into a larger design, even the most potentially spellbinding scenes lose their power. Important characters come and go, leaving only small impressions. I haven't seen the actress's second autobiographical play. Titled Neat, an abbreviation for Beneatha, the name of a favorite aunt, the show ran off-Broadway last year. In the case of Pretty Fire, the family member who best comes into relief is Charlayne's grandmother. When quizzed about feminism, she claims that she's always known that women can work as hard as men, but she nonetheless tells her granddaughters that, if they ever meet a man who wants to put them on a pedestal, they should "crawl up on it and take a nap for me." With lines like these, Woodard's people beg for more definition than the playwright gives them.
Under the direction of Vinnette Carroll herself, this current production is thoughtfully and beautifully realized. Not coincidentally Carroll, who was nominated for a Tony for her celebrated 1976 show Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, jump-started her own career by creating a one-woman show. The result has been an extraordinary career stretching over the past three decades. The actress/playwright/producer will be honored next month by the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers in New York, who have named her one of the "most creative, influential, and innovative directors of this century." (She was the first African-American woman to win a Tony nomination and has garnered a total of three nominations. She also won an Obie for her acting in the New York production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. With Langston Hughes she directed the original production of Black Nativity.) She brings an intelligent and inventive professionalism to this production. South Florida is lucky to count her among our working artists. Here's looking forward to the productions yet to come.
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