The attention-getting title of Pearl Cleage’s “Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous” may suggest a riotous evening of theatre, but Cleage’s seriocomic look at the plight of older African-American women in the arts doesn’t always fit that description. The uneven production, from the author of such acclaimed works as “Flyin’ West” and “Blues for an Alabama Sky”, is currently on the boards at Hartford Stage.
Pearl Cleage has a bone to pick in “Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous”. Pointing to the esteem that African-American playwrights like August Wilson enjoy (“He’s even got a theatre on Broadway named after him”, one character observes), Cleage also complains that the majority of Wilson’s plays are dominated by Black men who take center stage and pontificate while their female counterparts are relegated to supporting roles.
Center stage in “Angry, Raucous…” is Anna Campbell (Terry Burrell), an actress of a certain age, whose claim to fame back in the day was a controversial one-woman show called “Naked Wilson” where she performed monologues from August Wilson’s plays in the nude. Anna hasn’t worked in two years but has arrived in Atlanta with her companion, Betty (Marva Hicks), to receive a lifetime achievement award and, she believes, to give her farewell performance of “Naked Wilson”. Producer Kate Hughes (Cynthia D. Barker), however, has already hired Precious “Pete” Watson (Shakirah Demesier), a local stripper and fledgling adult film star, to perform Anna’s signature piece.
There’s a lot going on in “Angry, Raucous…” and not all of it always seems credible. A nude performance of Wilson monologues seems a stretch even for off-off-Broadway and, in the Atlanta performance, the show is going to be performed by “Pete” on an outdoor stage. Really? There’s also the question of Pete being hired with zero stage experience (except as a pole dancer). She then changes into a sexy gown and climbs atop a museum and becomes a viral sensation in the space of hours. We also learn early on that Anna has had issues involving a Ponzi scheme but it is never mentioned again. An awful lot happens without much explanation. It’s a shame because Cleage is exploring some valid themes here especially concerning older Black women, but it seems to be lost in the implausible plot machinations.
It is encouraging (and rare) finding a play with four roles for African-American women, but with the exception of Demesier’s scene-stealing “Pete” who arrives midpoint and commands immediate attention with her ace comic timing, the acting here is somewhat lacking. An early scene between Burrell and Hicks is hampered by a struggle with lines and there is a general shallowness to the performances. The acting on a whole, under the rather pedestrian direction of Susan V. Booth, rarely rises above the superficial.
The Atlanta hotel suite setting designed by Collette Pollard impresses even as I question the addition of sheer drapes in front of the bedroom and kitchen. Kara Harmon’s costumes are really splendid, however, and by the end of the show Michelle Habeck’s fine lighting recalls August Wilson’s use of magical realism. The late, great playwright would no doubt approve.
“Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous” continues at Hartford Stage through February 6. For further information visit: www.hartfordstage.org or call the theatre box office: 860.527.5151. Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.