I LOVE MY HAIR WHEN IT’S GOOD & THEN AGAIN WHEN IT LOOKS DEFIANT AND IMPRESSIVE (The Remix)
Forty/ AM at Manbites Dog Theater
Through Feb. 1; ilovemyhairtheplay.com
I was unable to see the original production of I Love My Hair When It’s Good & Then Again When It Looks Defiant and Impressive, so I was thrilled to learn it would be re-mounted in 2014 as part of Manbites Dog Theater’s Other Voices series. I eagerly awaited last Friday’s opening night.
But on Wednesday came a story in this outlet, by Byron Woods, containing evidence that the play’s author, Chaunesti Webb, had lifted published writings from other authors, literally putting their words in her characters’ mouths, while claiming them for her own. Unavoidably, this affected my reception of the play.
Art wants to show life, to grapple with social and cultural issues. Certain kinds of art want to expose wrongs and make change. One technique for making plays for this purpose from contemporary topics or events that has come into use in recent decades is called “devised theater.” A well-known example is that of The Laramie Project, made about and in response to an incident so brutal that it had to be transformed through art into an instrument of change. In devised theater, information is collected from many sources to create the framework of drama, and this is the method Webb used, only she padded out that research with bits taken from a book of essays (she says these bits have since been removed from the script). Devised or documentary theater can have a made-by-committee awkwardness, or it may radiate the raw truthful power of front-line reportage—but only if you believe in the integrity of the reporter.
So doubt was my companion in the theater for I Love My Hair… Not doubt in the sense of of the veracity of the stories about black girls and women and their struggles, with their hair as focus and metaphor; not doubt of the accuracy of the portrayals by the fabulous cast. More suspicion, a wariness of being duped or manipulated by the author. The shadings and appropriations reported in the story made the whole play suspect—and what about the songs and music? Who wrote those?
So, the show I saw: The script is a little jerky, and the hair stories and the life-moving-along stories are not in perfect balance. This production sags in spots—15 or 20 minutes of the hour and 45 could easily be tightened without cutting anything, except maybe some weak “expressive” choreography. The ending was surprisingly lackluster.
Suspicions and aesthetic carping aside, I Love My Hair… has a lot to recommend it. It’s wonderful to see three generations of women share family love, trouble and triumph in a series of stories linked by hair care. Two cousins, one pale and one dark (Aurelia Belfield and Lakeisha Coffey), three aunts/mothers (Hazel Edmond, Sherida McMullan and Yolanda Rabun) and one grandmother (Yolanda Rabun) show and tell through a long arc of their shared life. Each actress has some fine moments, and their ensemble singing is very good. Seeing five strong actresses at play is a real pleasure, and any night that includes Yolanda Rabun singing is a good one.