“Laugh or cry; it’s up to you,” my mother used to say. At Baltimore Center Stage’s stirring production of acclaimed playwright Marcus Gardley’s play A Wonder In My Soul, you can have both–belly laughs that come from deep recognition and tears that spring to your eyes with the salt of memory.
You may not have the same connection to the black women-owned salon and stylists that the customers of Swann (Harriett D. Foy) and Gywnn’s (Wandachristine) beauty parlor do or not know a weave or cornrow from a ponytail, but there’s both specificity and universality in this moving and funny play. Especially when it comes to the depiction of fierce, long-standing friendships between women and the way women behave and relax when not defined by the male gaze.
Gardley’s play was originally set in Chicago but a meeting with former artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah convinced him to dive into the culture and crises of Baltimore. He also ate his fair share of crabcakes and lake trout–Baltimore specialties.
Most importantly, Gardley met with a team of Baltimore salons and salon owners to get a real feel for the African American beauty parlor scene, which is more of therapy/gab fest with your sisters of another mister/reconnection to your roots/cheerleading session/sacred refuge than it is about hair.
If you’re from Baltimore, A Wonder in My Soul is a love letter to Charm City bordered in barbed wire. Like the mama who raised you, it is equally loving and hard. The play doesn’t flinch from depicting the brokenness of Baltimore–its violence, racism, drugs, gangs and bombed out neighborhoods–but it also shows the pride in our city and its people, history and culture that confounds all logic.
In case you don’t have Baltimore history and heroes etched in your brain, panels flanking the sides of the stage present a dynamic slide show of images and faces from the city’s past and present created by projection designer Alex Basco Koch. The mini history lesson continues with a wall of fame in the beauty parlor–a fancifully framed gallery of black sheroes from Madame C.J. Walker and Harriet Tubman all the way up to Diana Ross, Michele Obama and Aretha Franklin.
It is in this establishment that Swann and Gywnn (Baltimoreans will recognize the characters are named after neighborhoods, such as Gywnn Oak, Pen Lucy and Cherry Hill) have presided for more than 40 years, doing much more for the community than cutting heads. They are best friends from childhood in North Carolina, and “fight like cats and love like dogs,” fussing and feuding over each other while displaying unbreaking loyalty.
But tough times plague this temple of beauty and self-acceptance as economic hardships have kept the duo from paying the mortage on the salon and upstairs apartment. The days of clients lining up outside the door for services are long gone, but retirement is not a feasible option.
The neighborhood–you figure it is the Pennsylania Avenue area, once a mecca of black culture and art–has been trying to recover since the riots of 1968 and there’s rumors gentrification is coming in.
“First a Starbucks, then a Whole Foods, then a Trader Joes,” the august and sanctified First Lady Cedonia Mosher (Alexis J. Roston) ticks off with her well manicured fingers as Gywnn does her hair as she’s done for 20 or so years. “And you know that happens after we get a Trader Joes…” and the women shout out in unison “The white people come!”
Shades of August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, whose themes of gentification and dislocation of a neighborhood’s original black citizens are similar to the modern realities faced by Swann and Gwynn in a Baltimore daring to hope that Barack Obama will be elected president.
A Wonder in My Soul also tackles aging, the hierarchy of skin color and the struggle to have “good hair,” the lure of the streets for young black men, urban nonprofits and a city of neighborhoods tightly defined by race and social class.
For the most part, Gardley deftly handles the multiple plot lines and motifs, although A Wonder does tend to go all over the place. It shifts from musical interludes to domestic drama, history lessons, flashbacks, mystical rites as well as the characters and stories that were once the bread and butter of plays in what was known as the Chitlin Circuit, but have been updated in such films as Barbershop and Beauty Parlor and the television and movie work of Tyler Perry.
A Wonder in My Soul
closes December 23, 2018
Details and tickets
Anyone who knows me knows I am not a big fan of exposition–be it straight on narrative delivered by actors or recitative sung in the opera. Especially in the beginning, there is lots of exposition as Gynne and Swann bring the audience up to speed and introduce us to the other characters–Gywnn’s maligned cop daughter Cherry (Anastacia McCleskey) and prodigal son Drew (Stanley Anderson Jackson III), and First Lady’s personal assistant Pen Lucy (Kalilah Black), a young mother of three with a baby daddy and twins on the way.
We also get to meet their younger selves (smashingly played by Black and McCleskey), and see how Swann and Gywnn came to settle in Baltimore in 1968 when their dreams were wide open and they believed they could change the world.
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That’s a lot for one play, and director Daniel Bryant and dramaturg Sabine Decatur must have nerves of steel to keep all these theatrical plates spinning and not crash. Somehow, it holds together, due to the magic of Foy and Wandachristine in the roles of Swann and Gwynn. Funny, profane, wise and gifted, these actresses give the roles beauty, intelligence and grit that allow you to skim over any bumps in the script.
This portrayal of friendship is rare and golden–we should be grateful to be allowed to see women on the stage so naturally and powerful and also be mad that it is not commonplace. The strength of Swann and Gwynn’s bond and their belief that all women are beautiful and should love their God-given hair and shape lifts you up in a time where the media aggrandizes catfights, mean girls and back biting.
This love of all things female extends to the other characters–Roston’s queenly and keenly observed portrayal of loyal customer First Lady, Black as the beleagured and bone tired Pen Lucy and McCleskey as daughter Cherry who practically turns herself inside out to please the mother who worships her son.
A Wonder in My Soul allows you to bask in the glow of female friendships burnished with pain, anger and loss. These women never give up, on life or each other, and if they can do it we can too.
A Wonder in My Soul by Marcus Gardley . Director: Daniel Bryant. Featuring: Kalilah Black, Harriett D. Foy, Stanley Andrew Jackson III, Anastacia McCleskey, Alexis J. Roston, Wandachristine.Musical Director/Original Music/Arrangements: Jarel Landon. Scenic Designer: Wilson Chin. Costume Designer: David Burdick. Lighting Designer: Kathy A. Perkins. Sound Designer: Mikhail Fiksel. Projection Designer: Alex Basco Koch. Wig and Hair Designer: Cherelle D. Guylon. Production Dramaturg: Sabine Decatur. Stage Managers: Marcie Friedman and Danielle Teague-Daniels. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Did you stay for the second act????
After the opening poetry recital. (which awoke the wonder in MY soul),
the GPS, or was it Siri,
took some wrong turns, circles, and dead ends.
And the WONDERMENT just got up and left.
Stephanie Cirkovich says
The second photo in the online article misidentifies Harriett D. Foy; she is standing while the other actress is sitting.