SHAKIN' THE MESS OUTTA MISERY
by Shay Youngblood
Directed by Phyllis Cicero
Set Designed by George Miller
Lighting Designed by Michael Skinner
Sound Designed by Brent Nance
Costumes Designed by Barbara O'Donoghue
Charlet Dupar - Daughter
Mary Keaton-Jordan - Big Mama
May Allen - Miss Mae
Michele Rene - Miss Lamama/Miss Rosa
Genine Ware - Miss Corine/Miss Shine
Karen Petite - Dee Dee/Miss Tom
Evette Perry Buchanan - Miss Mary/Maggie
Olivia Morrow Payne - Fannie Mae/Young Woman
Reviewed Performance: 1/30/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Family stories ? most of us have heard them. Those same, priceless stories a relative told over and over again at gatherings or were reminisced at a member's passing. Those stories were funny, sad, comforting and sometimes awe-inspiring as we realized the hardships and yet wonderful lives our older relatives led. It was those stories that made up the foundation of our own lives ? the mortar that held together each human brick, each ancestor, each person with whom we grew up.
Playwright Shay Youngblood wrote short stories of women in her life as a young girl in our South to be an antidote for her homesickness while living in the south of France. She had lived among and been raised by strong women and she wrote to honor each of them in word. Blending their lives and her remembrances together and 21 characters later, she joined forces with Atlanta's Horizon Theatre and whittled her stories down to a well-crafted, funny and heart-felt play with music, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, now being performed at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre.
Stemming from deep-rooted spiritual tradition, the play centered on a young girl and her passage into womanhood during the 1960's turbulent times in the South. Now age 25, she had returned home with the passing of the last of seven women in her life ? her own mother and six "Big Mamas"- who watched over and guided her on her journey "down to the river" and on into life. As the play's narrator, the girl named Daughter led us back to her 12th year and introduced each story, in a series of vignettes, as they unfolded with the music of R&B, pop, blues, African spirituals and those deep down Gospel songs that gave you goose bumps.
The seven other women portrayed amazing variances of characters; women still named "Miss _____", conjurers, house maids or "domestic engineers" as they were actually called, aunties, cousin, family friends and townsfolk. Each brought their own personal anger, shame, joy, magic and, most of all, love to the girl without her mother.
Shakin the Mess Outta Misery spoke out for those hard-working women, for their forced inequality and suffering for civil rights. They were women who sometime got power from drinking and bad-mouthing men but who also found power in their faith and the traditions of their ancestors. Teaching and passing on was of outmost importance to them and with their words and glorious singing voices, by the play's end, there was a sense of peace and fulfillment in the air.
I was impressed by the simple elegance of the neutral toned set designed by George Miller. Using three wide "columns" of gathered curtains, weighted with rods at the bottom, gave the actresses regal entrances, places to hide, the illusion of wealth in a mansion or the essence of holiness in a church. Tiered steps and open curved stairwell became a bus stop and bus, Big Mama's living room and upstairs, a parlor or a fishing bridge.
The sound effects and music as put together by Brent Nance enhanced and fortified each scene, each story, making them richer and more meaningful. Michael Skinner effectively took a minimalist approach in designing the lighting. He used just enough to identify each change in time and location. On a technical note, there were uncomfortably long pauses between a few scenes where the audience was left in the dark without music. I felt certain they would be cleaned up it being the first running week.
In coordinating costumes, Barbara O'Donoghue chose simple pieces that did double duty or could be quickly changed for each scene and the dual roles most of the actresses played. Remove an apron and the maids' uniforms became funereal black. The young woman reverted back to young girl before our eyes with a gingham shirt-waist dress and hair ribbons. Simple, full tunics and hair scarves transformed Southern women into African queens.
Director Phyllis Cicero gathered veteran and less-experienced performers and helped each woman find their characters' core values, honing them to fine diamonds. These actresses worked and played as a close family and made it difficult to single any one out. They each brought their very best to all their roles. Olivia Morrow Payne had less time onstage but played both young housekeeper and Daughter's mother, Fannie Mae, with quiet dignity. Michele Rene simply was both the mother goddess, Miss Lamama and the confident Miss Rosa and held all the power her stature denoted.
Evette Perry Buchanan's demure Miss Mary and the wilder, life-experienced Maggie were well-defined and, for a good moment, I thought they were played by two completely different actresses. May Allen's hard drinking and unhappy in love Miss Mae was happily played tongue in cheek. Miss Corine was the town's "conjure woman" who could either heal or cause things to "happen" and Genine Ware's portrayal was solid as steel. Taking a 180 degree shift, her sweet Miss Shine was all white-gloved proper as the Governor's maid with a secret and Ware's facial expressions were hilarious and delightful as she served tea to front row "guests".
Daughter's aunt, Big Mama, was the women's matron and needed a grounded confidence onstage. Mary Keaton-Jordan had such a presence and fit into Big Mama's shoes beautifully. Karen Petite made a terrific, mischievous cousin Dee Dee in 60's cat-rimmed glasses and go-go dress. But I had a special place in my heart for her Miss Tom, the so wise woman who loved another woman and she helped Daughter understand that there are many dimensions to womanhood and the world. I loved Petite's Miss Tom with her easy going demeanor, her style of dress and her quietly unique personality.
As the sun is at the center of our solar system, so Daughter was the center around which those women revolved. Charlet Dupar was stunning in her portrayal of the 12 year old Daughter. Dupar was a young adult but so deftly revealed her child-self that I forgot she was almost twice that age. She became Daughter without gimmickry or "pretending" to be a child. She simply held herself open to all the wonder, lessons and experience of a young girl and the result was perfection.
In the Talk Back with Ms. Youngblood and the actresses directly after, they spoke of the play as set around a ritual and as it being a celebration. She said she wrote a story-telling play. This production added more music to bring a contemporary familiarity to subjects, people and ideals that might not be as familiar to today's younger audiences. What is familiar is that Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery is everybody's story, as one actress said, and they all agreed the story was as timeless as storytelling itself. Jubilee Theatre's production was worthy of spending time with those characters based on real women and actual accounts in history. I was so glad I heard the stories and even more glad to be passing their stories on.
Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery
506 Main Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Runs through Sunday, February 20th
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 pm.
Tickets are $15 to $25 with an online special for $10 on Thursdays.
Rush tickets for $10 are available 15 minutes before curtain time only. Group rates are also available.
Call 817-333-4411 for information and to purchase tickets or go to www.jubileetheatre.org