It takes strength, passion, faith, and a good dose of sass to be an admirable black woman, and apparently the same criteria can be applied to produce an extremely admirable play. Shay Youngblood’s Shakin the Mess Outta Misery takes a rich collection of stories about a young girl’s coming of age under the influence and tutelage of some mighty feisty women and manages to weave the fragments into an astoundingly compelling saga. As a result, the two hours spent at the McGinn Cazale Theatre bestow the satiated, content sensation akin to having just watched a joyous life unfold before you, with the ability to take the lessons home to share.
Due largely in part to director Stephen Sunderlin and his dazzling cast of women, Misery is anything but. With the haunting strains of humming that greet the audience at the top of the show, the sense of anticipation for something marvelous has already been achieved. By the time the women storm the stage with heaving swells of song, the knowledge that everything yet to come will be just as vibrant and spirited is an invigorating expectation.
Told by Daughter (played with candid honesty by the versatile Kimberly Hebert Gregory), Misery recounts the lessons learned from her “Big Mamas”, the group of women who raised her after being abandoned by her birth mother as a young girl. These distinctive ladies are each given a chance to recount their colorful histories to Daughter, while occasionally tossing in relevant tales of other local women to heighten their points. Some stories revolve around the mundane and sometimes bleak facts of life in the South, while others incorporate affairs, deaths, and a little voodoo. All are fondly remembered by Daughter as what taught her to grow into a proud black woman, even when all the Mamas are now gone.
With a play like this, the collection of stories would be nothing if not for the flawless actresses sent to inhabit the women of Daughter’s memory. Here, each woman lights up the stage with their exceptionally eccentric characterizations, making it simple to understand why Daughter is so proud to have been loved by each Mama. As the matron most directly in charge of raising Daughter, the original Big Mama is played with gentle compassion by Johnnie Mae, an imposing woman devoted to her Bible and capable of using it to keep Daughter in line. Kimberly “Q” gives Aunt Mae her requisite hip-swaggering confidence as the independent woman too busy for a husband, and Phynjuar delights in Miss Lamama’s outlandish tribal devotions and dynamic confrontational skills.
Delivering a sparkling performance (or three, to be more exact) is Erika Myers, who successfully portrays three generations of women starting with Daughter’s cousin Dee Dee and running all the way to the elderly Miss Rosa. Ms. Myers’s ability to completely transform into each character is mesmerizing, for there literally is no trace of the former woman when she appears as the next. Also a treat to watch is Nysheva-Starr as beauty shop owner Miss Corinne, to whom the ladies flock for gossip and the chance to “curl up and dye.”
Director Stephen Sunderlin’s ability to immerse the production in an avalanche of endorphin-inducing “girl power” never feels forced, nor does the cohesion of seemingly unrelated stories into one profound lesson. Misery succeeds with the familiar impressions it leaves, even if your own life never even remotely resembled that of Daughter and the Mamas. The extraordinarily musical gospel/spiritual accompaniment the women provide is so powerful it would be nearly impossible to not get swept away with their enormous voices, but note the artful way the voices fade into a reflective memory as Daughter closes the show. Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery doesn’t just teach Daughter what it means to be a proud and powerful person, it teaches us all.
Vital Theatre Company