One of the first questions Charlayne Woodard asks in her new one woman show In Real Life is the Langston Hughes quandary "What becomes of a dream deferred?" In Charlayne's case, the answer seems to be that it hibernates, gathers strength, and emerges like a steel butterfly when it gets the chance. In her previous autobiographical shows, Charlayne dealt with more heady topics: cross burnings in Pretty Fire and dealing with a brain-damaged relative in Neat. In Real Life deals with a much more dangerous topic, being one of the most overused themes to find a home in autobiographical shows: the struggles of moving to New York in order to become an actress.
Charlayne's dream in the 70s was to move to New York to become an Actress. Armed with five monologues and no songs or dance skills, she arrived when musicals were all the rage, especially if you were African American. The Wiz and Bubbling Brown Sugar were two of the hottest shows on Broadway and provided prime employment opportunities for actors of color; opportunities which Charlayne was loath to take advantage of. However, an attempt to botch her audition for Ain't Misbehavin' only proved her innate talents and connection with lyrics, as her rendition of her audition piece (an accapella version of "Auld Lang Syne," which she intends to use as both her ballad and up tempo piece) displayed. Of course, she got the part, wound up nominated for a Tony, and went on to burn herself out doing a high energy musical eight times a week for which she was ill-prepared.
Of such stuff third rate cabaret and fringe shows are made, as evidenced by the multitude of "Just Jack" styled acts out there. Few people's lives are interesting enough to sustain two plus hours, and an even smaller number know how to effectively mine their lives and present the material in an engaging manner; Charlayne is one of the very few. Blessed with a superb comic sense, a keen gift of mimicry, and most importantly the storyteller's gift of making the most intimate and specific of instances relate to us all. Anybody who has thought of moving to New York and becoming a performer will love this show. Anybody who has ever been in a cutthroat rehearsal process will love this show. Anybody who has wondered what it takes to do eight shows a week will love this show. Anybody who likes well-crafted drama/comedies about one woman's growth and experiences will love this show.
In Real Life is also blessed by subtle yet masterful support by its director and designers. Former Seattle Rep artistic director, Dan Sullivan (who's show Proof is currently on Broadway) helped shape a seamlessly flowing evening, giving the illusion that it is all created on the spot. Movements and situations are largely organic and never feel 'actory.' John Lee Beatty has created a set dramatic in its simplicity. Combined with Kathy A. Perkins' exceptional light design, his curved backdrop takes on a multitude of textures and locales. Curtis Walker sound design adds almost unnoticeable grace notes to flesh out a mood even further.
While the show is still a little rough, having been workshopped at the Rep in early 1999 and tinkered with throughout last week's preview performances, it is already a fully engaging production that will only improve as it is performed in front of an audience. Seattle has been host to at least a dozen one-person shows this year, and In Real Life ranks with the best. Its next stop will be at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and I highly recommend you buy tickets for it there or in Seattle as soon as possible; you won't be disappointed.
In Real Life runs through January 7th at the Seattle Rep. For tickets and more information visit www.seattlerep.org. On December 16th at 4:30pm, Charlayne will talk with Seattle Rep's artistic director, Kurt Beattie, in StageVoices at the Rep. Suggested donation is $5.00, and tickets can be reserved by calling 206-443-2222.