BWW Review: Victory Gardens' World Premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL Pays Loving Homage to Chicago's South Side and Female Friendship
In Kurtis Boetcher's set design for Marcus Gardley's world premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL, the backdrop for the South Side beauty shop where the play is set prominently displays the photographs of black female icons ranging from Diana Ross to Beyonce-and all of course have fabulous hair in the photos. And as we learn in the play, Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake's (Jacqueline Williams) fictional beauty shop has played host to a number of these famous black women over the years. But what Gardley's play does so beautifully is take the story of these specific, everyday characters and lend a universality to them. The play takes place primarily in 2008 but shows us flashbacks of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) as they make their way from Mississippi to settle in Chicago and start their business. Along the way, Gardley weaves a narrative that is warm and sometimes funny but also ultimately serious and touching. And as one would expect, Johnny Jamison's hair and wig design is just superb.
Under the direction of Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew, A WONDER IN MY SOUL teems with life. Oglesby and Williams have a terrific rapport as lifelong friends Birdie and Bell, who have great affection for one another even as they come into conflict once Bell's son Lafayette (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.) gets himself into hot water and Bell's police officer daughter Paulina (also played by Lynn) has to step in. Joining Birdie and Bell at the salon is a long-time customer who prefers to go by the name First Lady (a fantastic Linda Bright Clay) and her new assistant Normal Beverly (Robinson again). The connections between all the characters feel utterly human, which makes the stakes of the play likewise feel real. Lynn and Robinson are especially delightful in the flashback scenes, allowing us a beautiful glimpse into the friendship at the core of this piece.
A WONDER IN MY SOUL also features music throughout the piece, and it is a delicious bonus that we're able to hear Lynn (who was superlative as Effie White in Porchlight's DREAMGIRLS last spring) use her formidable vocal chops on a solo number. Overall the music in the piece (some of which includes original compositions by Jaret Landon) adds to the warmth and heart at the core of this play.
Though the play is set in 2008, Gardley has given us a piece that has echoes of the present moment even as it takes place just before Obama's election. Considering the spot we're in now, this seems eerily prescient and yet does not detract from the ultimately warm-hearted feeling of the play. A WONDER IN MY SOUL is a lovely tribute to the beauty shops on Chicago's South Side, as depicted through Birdie and Bell's business, and also to the enduring power of female friendship and both the challenges and joys of living in the city as a black woman.
A WONDER IN MY SOUL plays through March 12 at Victory Gardens Theater. Tickets are $15-$60. For more information, visit VictoryGardens.org.
Photo by Liz Lauren