WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: Pretty Fire
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: March 27, March 31, April 6, April 12, April 17, 2019
Ticket Prices: $25 general admission; $20 for RAPT card holders; $15 for students
Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org
5th Wall Theatre (Carol Piersol) and TheatreLAB (Deejay Gray) have joined forces once again, this time to co-produce the Women’s Theatre Festival, featuring 4 shows in 4 weeks by 4 companies. The festival opened Wednesday, March 27, with 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Charlayne Woodard’s 1995 autobiographical work, Pretty Fire, directed by Piersol starring Haliya Roberts.
I first remember seeing Haliya Roberts last fall in the Heritage Ensemble production of Living in the Key of B Unnatural. Then she caught my attention again with a strong performance as the assistant producer of a radio show, Linda MacArthur, in the 5th Wall Theatre production, Talk Radio earlier this year. Roberts has raised the bar and moved to a whole new level with her stellar performance in Pretty Fire.
Woodard’s one-woman play is a warm and familiar memoir of a black woman who, wonder of wonders, grew up in a strong, loving family just outside of Albany, NY – with both parents and two sets of grandparents. The story begins with Charlayne’s premature birth in the family’s bathroom on a snowy winter night. For those who are not familiar with upstate New York, Albany is quite rural. The baby weighed less than two pounds and the doctors had little hope that she would survive the night. She was “blue black and fuzzy” and her fingers were still webbed but her paternal grandfather found the hospital chaplain, went to the chapel, and prayed with confidence and conviction.
Roberts takes ownership of this character so that, as one friend said after the opening, it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. Piersol has staged this show very simply, with just a bench and some lights (credit Erin Barclay) and some very effective and well-placed sound effects (Kelsey Cordrey is the Festival sound designer). I don’t know what Piersol told Roberts, or how much guidance she provided, but whatever it was, it was just right.
Roberts mastered the little girl’s voice, the grandmother’s testimonials and hallelujahs and the mother’s sometimes unconventional and unexpected words of wisdom. She also captured the history and anecdotes with authenticity and accuracy. Her recounting of taking a bath with her younger sister in a large tin tub in her maternal grandmother’s home in Georgia brought back memories of my own childhood, taking baths in a similar tub in my great-aunt’s house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The water had to be obtained from a spigot (or in my case, from the backyard pump) and then heated on top of the kitchen stove before being poured lovingly into the tub set on the kitchen or dining room floor.
The revelation of her secret – being bullied and molested by a neighbor who lived between her house and the local grocery store – brought me to the edge of my seat, ready to seek revenge on her behalf. But Pretty Fire isn’t about abuse or defeat; it is positive, uplifting, life-affirming – and there are only four more chances to see it!
BTW, playwright Charlayne Woodard, may be familiar to some as an actress who appeared in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ and on television in the recurring roles of Janice on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sister Peg, the nun with a mission for prostitutes and junkies, on Law and Order: SVU (2002-2011).
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.