One of St. Louis's finest actresses mines theatrical gold in Charlayne Woodard's Pretty Fire. Linda Kennedy pulls out all the stops in this tour-de-force performance, embodying a host of memorable characters, from grandparents to nurses to church deacons to the main character, Charlayne.
Under the direction of Elizabeth Van Dyke, the Black Repertory Theatre's production is a tribute to simplicity, a positive example of the adage "less is more." Woodard's autobiographical story is told in five parts, revealing the unique circumstances of her birth and childhood and the beginnings of her career as a performing artist. Scenic and costume designer Marie Anne Chiment frames the action with five long marbled purple panels -- representing, perhaps, the five chapters in Woodard's story. Kennedy employs just one piece of furniture, an elegant but practical bench the actress transforms into a couch, a porch and various other sites for her wide-ranging stories. Dressed in a luscious cream-colored tunic with matching pants and shoes, she moves nimbly through the fascinating first twelve years of Charlayne's life. Jim Burwinkle's lighting smoothes transitions to various locations, but it's Kennedy's skill as a storyteller that transports the audience from New York to Georgia to the wonders of a child's mind.
In the opening chapter, Charlayne tells of her unexpected arrival -- eight weeks early. Anyone who has experienced childbirth will relate to the spot-on details of the baby's surprising entrance into the world, and Kennedy's portrayal of Charlayne's father -- so busy listening to Miles Davis that he almost misses the birth -- adds appropriate humor. As Charlayne's grandfather, Kennedy transforms herself effortlessly into an elderly man sending up a mighty prayer in the hospital's chapel. (The deeply felt Christian faith of Charlayne's family is a constant theme in the play, and the Grandel, originally built as a church, seems a perfect match for Pretty Fire, which seamlessly intertwines theater and faith.)
The second and third chapters of the play, titled "Nigger" and "Pretty Fire," explore the effects of prejudice and popular culture. Dishing up a smooth soft-shoe routine, Kennedy is delightful as a young Charlayne explaining her desire to be Shirley Temple when she grows up. (To their mother's great dismay, her sister's career goal is to be "the happy black maid.") The two sisters travel south to spend the summer with grandparents. As their Georgia-accented grandmother, Kennedy excels in a hilarious story of a mistaken wedding present. The action takes a breathtaking dramatic turn as Charlayne experiences a KKK raid on her grandparents' neighborhood. Act One ends with Kennedy softly singing the chorus of "Dixie," which takes on new meaning in light of the burning cross Charlayne has just viewed.
Kennedy's seemingly inexhaustible energy carries her through the fourth installment of Pretty Fire, in which she portrays a sexual predator and the victim with equal amounts of realistic emotion. In the final chapter, eleven-year-old Charlayne learns both the terror and joy of performing, as her clever grandmother manipulates her into singing a solo at church. Kennedy's rapid transitions between familiar songs and characters in the church service scene made it seem as if a crowd of characters were onstage -- another tribute to her remarkable acting work. Woodard ends the play with a heartfelt homage to her family, her God and the audience -- a finish that could seem overly sentimental in the hands of a less-talented actress. In Kennedy's capable hands, the finale brought the audience to its feet.
It's fitting that Pretty Fire plays through Mother's Day weekend. While the paternal side of her family contributes positively to Charlayne's growth, it's her mother and grandmothers who seem to live most vividly in her memories. Pretty Fire is a tribute to the strength of family love and the power of faith. For Linda Kennedy, it's the role of a lifetime, and her strength as an actress and storyteller carries the show to joyous heights.