Now extended thru March 19
A world premiere drama full of joy, strength and fascinating characters
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
|A Wonder in My Soul|
Review by Catey Sullivan
There’s an important, provocative and entertaining story buried within Marcus Gardley’s A Wonder in My Soul. The world premiere drama is filled with joy, strength and fascinating characters. The trouble is, the strongest elements of Victory Gardens production don’t remain in the forefront. They’re undercut by an inconsistent supporting characters and a plot that doesn’t fully hold up under scrutiny.
In Aberdeen Calumet and Bell Grand Lake, Gardley creates two strong, complicated women, characters who ace the Bechdel test and evoke the indomitable spirit of “Having Our Say’s” Delany sisters. While fictional, Aberdeen and Bell are made of similar stuff as the women in the 1993 oral history-turned-hit-drama.
In a structure that toggles from flashbacks to election day 2008, Gardley shows the women from childhood onward, following them as the leave the rural south and open a beauty salon on Chicago’s south side. From the pre-Harold Washington years to Barack Obama’s historic win, Gardley captures a city changing in tandem with the lives of his fascinating protagonists.
Director Chay Yew shapes a uniformly excellent ensemble led by Jacqueline Williams (Bell Grand Lake) and Greta Oglesby (Aberdeen Calumet.) The primary setting is the salon. Bell and Abderdeen build it strand by strand, creating a place where women of color know they’ll find aestheticians who are masters of the endlessly varied textures of their hair. But Bell and Aberdeen’s beauty parlor becomes far more than a place to go for expert box braids, lace-fronts and dye jobs. Under the loving care and relentless work ethic of its owners, it becomes a community center, a haven in a neighborhood increasingly plagued by gang violence, and a refuge where gossip, news and music are in abundant supply.
The high point of the production comes at the top of the second act, with a poetic and infectiously rhythmic (you’ll be snapping your fingers no more than two phrases in) ode to the culture, history and the challenges that Bell and Aberdeen untangle at the salon.
Williams delivers this magnificent monologue with energy, grace and a perfectly balanced mix of humor and drama. From Jheri curls to the Big Chop, Bell provides a view of African American women through the lens of their hair. And lest that sound superficial, rest assured it is not. You don’t need to look any further that the Armed Services’ ill-advised ban on “braids” last year to see just how much political and socio-economic baggage has been foisted on Black hair over the centuries. Bell’s monologue could easily be the prologue to Chris Rock’s marvelous 2009 documentary “Good Hair”- in the space of a few stanzas, it captures centuries of history, art and beauty ideals.
The problems is that the rest of A Wonder in My Soul doesn’t live up to the power of that passage. Gardley’s plot is weak, and one of his key supporting characters behaves with glaring inconsistency.
That plot hinges on the salon’s impending foreclosure, an event brought about by gentrification and by the fact that Bell’s son Lafayette (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.) has been embezzling funds from a non-profit he’s formed to build a youth center. Since he’s borrowed hundreds of thousands from the salon in order to build that center, his financial downfall is also the salon’s. The plot’s inconsistencies center on Lafayette: Initially, we’re told he’s just wanted for questioning. Later, he’s the target of what appears to be a Swat-team set-up.
That’s a relatively minor point. Lafayette’s character is the major problem here. First, he delivers a stirring, impassioned and unapologetic soliloquy about why he embezzled, and where the money went. There are a few holes in his explanation, they’re easy to forgive because the oratory is so galvanizing and because Lafayette is so defiantly unashamed of working a system stacked against him. A few short scenes later, that proud defiance is gone. Lafayette is on his knees; weeping, ashamed and begging forgiveness. Even given the twists the plot takes as far as the financials are concerned, the abrupt about-face doesn’t seem plausible.
Also less than credible is the fact that even after losing some $200,000 of the salon’s money, Bell and Aberdeen entrust Lafayette with what little they have left, and send him off to take charge of a make-or-break transaction that will be complicated at best. It makes no sense that these capable, strong, independent women wouldn’t take charge themselves.
With the plot structured around these dubiously believable money matters, A Wonder in My Soul stumbles where it could soar, giving the spotlight to Lafayette when it should highlight Bell and Aberdeen. Williams and Oglesby are powerhouses, each capable of great dramatic depth and pinpoint accurate comic timing. Williams has a gift for knocking colorful aphorisms (“That’s as useful as two left shoes on a three-legged donkey.”) out of the park.
As Bell’s daughter Paulina, Donica Lynn radiates charisma and nails the sadness and frustration of a woman trapped in a stable but soul-crushing career. The salon regulars are played with terrific impact as well. Linda Bright Clay brings a fitting tone of entitlement and vulnerability to First Lady, the Republican wife of a mega-rich preacher. As First Lady’s very pregnant assistant Norma, Camille Robinson, radiates both sass and class.
Gardley weaves music throughout the plot, giving Lynn’s legendary vocals a fitting showcase and allowing the music to give authenticity to the atmosphere.
A Wonder in My Soul continues through
March 12th March 19th at VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$60 (students: $15), and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes a 10-minute intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Linda Bright Clay (First Lady and others), Donica Lynn (Paulina, Young Bell), Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. (Lafayette, Roosevelt and others), Greta Oglesby (Aberdeen Calumet), Camille Robinson (Norma, Beverly, Young Birdie), Jacqueline Williams (Bell Grand Lake).
behind the scenes
Chay Yew (director), Kurtis Boetcher (scenic design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Lee Fiskness (lighting design), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), Maleah Heidenreich and Alec Long (properties design), Jaret Landon (original music), Liviu Pasare (projection design), Johnny Jamison (hair, wig design), Isaac Gomez (dramaturg), Amanda J. Davis (stage manager), Ameenah Kaplan (movement consultant, assistant to the director), Liz Lauren (photographs)