The Importance of Being Groomed

How does one pass on legacy and heritage? For many it is in the home; for others it is church services or fraternal groups. Craig Marberry believes that, for the African-American community, there are two institutions that service to pass on this legacy and heritage: the church, and the barber shop. He wrote about this in his book “Cuttin’ Up”, which was turned into a play of the same name, written by Charles Randolph-Wright.

Last night, we saw “Cuttin’ Up at the Pasadena Playhouse (MySpace, blog, pasadenaplayhse). The show was presented as part of the Sheldon Epps Diversity Project in co-production with the Cleveland Play House. Cuttin’ Up tells the story of Andre, a barber in his mid-40s who has moved around from barber shop to barber shop across the country. He started his career when he was 8, learning the trade from his eight older brothers and his father. As the play opens, Andre is just starting to work for Howard, a long-time barber and shop owner in his mid-70s in Pasadena. This mileau — the barber shop — is the entire set of the story. Howard has a deep respect for the role of the barber shop in the community, and especially in the African American community. We learn of this respect through the stories told as the customers pass in and out. We learn how haircuts initially played a role in slave identification. We learn how being well dressed and well groomed gives a man dignity and pride of appearance. We learned how the diverse clientel can be role models. We learn how history is transmitted. We learned how the barber shaped many important people of today (including Oprah Winfrey, whose father, Vernon Winfrey, was a barber in Nashville).

Most importantly, we learn learn this through the stories of Howard, Andre, and Rudy (the young 20-something barber). We ultimately learn why Andre has moved from city to city, and how the African-American barbershop creates a secondary family home for the community. We see that Andre has been running because he was uncomfortable with the notion of family and growing close to people: his mother left his family when he was young, and his marriages have all failed. Ultimately, though, he finds a family in Howard and the barber shop, and we see how Howard cements this family through the passing on of the barber shop legacy.

African-American barbershops as a setting are nothing new. We saw this in the 2002 movie “Barbershop”, its sequel “Barbershop 2”, and the related movie “Beauty Shop”. But these movies played for the comedy, not the message. Although “Cuttin’ Up” has a large amount of comedy, ultimately the story is about the message: the importance of this institution, the importance of the family that you make, the importance of the oral tradition, and the importance of cultural institutions. I don’t think this is just an African-American message: I think this is true for most men’s barbershops (at least if you can find one not fully staffed with young punks). The shop I go to today is this way: I love going and listening to the stories I hear. You don’t find that at a Supercuts or Fantastic Sams.

The Playhouse did an excellent job telling this story: it had the right mix of comedy and bathos to keep the audience interested, and the actors truly inhabited their characters. You could see they were having fun performing this play, and to me that is an important aspect of making any play great. I don’t like actors for whom this is just a job: everyone wins when the actors joy in telling the story is shared with the joy of the audience in seeing it. About the only problem I had was a few scenes where the dialogue just wasn’t clear enough.

The play starred Darryl Alan Reed as Andre, Adolphus Ward as Howard, and Dorian Logan as Rudy. Playing the various patrons and historical figures passing through the shop were Harvy Blanks (Kenny, Rev. Carson, Bernard), Bill Grimmette (Rev. Jenkens, Uncle, Don King, Vernon Winfrey), Iona Morris (Karen, Yvette, Sandra), Maceo Oliver (John, Jermaine, Wheeler), and Jacques C. Smith (Howard Jr., Willy, Lou). The remarkable set was designed by Michael Carnahan, with costumes by David Kay Mickelsen, lighting by Phil Monat, Sound by James C. Swonger, and casting by Michael Donovan, Elissa Myers, and Paul Fouquet. The production stage manager was Jill Gold assisted by Lea Chazin. The production was directed by Israel Hicks. It was a co-production of the Pasadena Playhouse (Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director) and the Cleveland Play House (Michael Bloom, Artistic Director), and was originally produced the Arena Stage (Molly Smith, Artistic Director).

As I noted above, I thought the production was excellent. So did the reviewers: LA Times, Daily News, OC Register, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, or Broadway World. In fact, if I have a complaint with the show, it is not the actors but the audience. Let me explain what I mean. Whenever we go to one of Sheldon’s “Diversity” shows, it is clear the moment we step out of our cars. It is visible in the mix of the attendees. What is normally the relatively-white audience of the Playhouse darkens. The black plays tend to play to blacks; the white plays to whites–and this bothers me everytime I see it. To me, good theatre is good theatre: it is color blind. What matters is the story and the quality of the acting. I think it does a disservice when the audience self-segregates: one misses learning the richness of stories that make up this great country. I believe that everyone–white, black, brown, yellow, green, purple, aquamarine, and more–should attend live theatre–and not just stories about their culture. I don’t just go to Jewish plays or white plays; I go to all plays. The Playhouse is to be applauded for presenting plays from a wider spectrum of cultures; now if that wide spectrum of cultures could return the favor and attend regularly.

Cuttin’ Up” continues through April 15. Go see if, if you can.

Speaking of attending plays, what’s next for us? Currently, we have nothing ticketed until June, although we are going to the So Cal Ren Faire next weekend. During the April and May lull, I’ll be looking for tickets to “Driving Miss Daisy” at REP East; and possibly tickets for “Beehive at Valley Musical Theatre… plus whatever else looks interesting on Goldstar. We’ll also be attending “The Wizard of Oz and Then Some” at Nobel Middle School in Northridge on 5/31, 6/1, and 6/3. Currently ticketed theatre starts back up in June, with “The Constant Wife” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 6/2 @ 8pm; “Side Show” at UCLA Theatre Arts on 6/9 @ 8pm; “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Broadway/LA on 6/16 @ 2pm. We’re on vacation the end of June in Nashville, and when we return, it is “Jersey Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre on 7/15 @ 7:30pm and “Can-Can” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 7/28 at 8:00pm. Lastly, I plan on ordering season tickets for the Ahmanson, as discussed here.