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Review: 'ANGRY, RAUCOUS' ANYTHING BUT SHAMELESS at Hartford Stage

Through Feb. 6 at Hartford Stage

Review: 'ANGRY, RAUCOUS' ANYTHING BUT SHAMELESS at Hartford Stage
Terry Burrell (left) and Shakira DeMesier in Pearl Cleage"s "Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous" at Hartford Stage

Although "Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous" is the title of Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage's new play, it quite amply describes the two women at the center of this literary comedy. They both are from two different generations of Black women, but as we learn during the evening, they have each had to face frustrating barriers to realizing their intellectual and professional goals.

The play is now running at Hartford Stage through February 6, where it is receiving a clear, unfussy production under the direction of Susan V. Booth, the artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where she first directed Cleage's new work. Cleage has long been a mainstay at the Alliance, where quite a few of her plays have premiered, including several that have made their way to Connecticut theaters over the past several years, such as "Flying West" and "Blues for an Alabama Sky."

In "Angry, Raucous..." Cleage introduces us to the esteemed actress Anna Campbell, whose is long remembered for her audacious and groundbreaking one woman show, "Naked Wilson," a reading of an assortment of the male dialogue from a compendium of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson's works, which she performed entirely in the nude. Although intended as a feminist reclamation of Wilson's oeuvre which focused extensively on black males, Anne left the country shortly thereafter and has been based in Europe ever since, with her loyal and observant secretary-companion, Betty.

She is lured back to Atlanta where a local theater company plans to re-stage her evening-length monologue, but with a different actress in the part. What she doesn't know until after her arrival is that Pete, the young performer recruited by producer Kate, has made quite a named for herself in some of Atlanta's adult entertainment establishments. Anne quickly goes into haughty, high-dudgeon mode, threatening to close down the production unless she herself can play the part, since no other actor has ever done so.

Performed in one act with no intermission, the play is a bit slow in getting underway, perhaps due to Cleage's desire to have the necessary exposition unroll in a naturalistic, matter of fact manner to enhance believability. This does whet the audience's appetite for the anticipated meeting between adamantly serious Anne and the bubbly but shrewd Pete.

Their eventual encounters will not disappoint the audience, but as the two women press hard for their positions, the audience gets a glimpse at how times have not essentially changed for Black familiar to the two generations may be different. Terry Burrell who first came to major attention through her work in Broadway's "Dreamgirls," plays the proud, obstinate Anna who clings possessively to the success and memory of her earth-shattering masterwork. Her diva-like behavior is looked on wryly by her long-time companion and secretary Betty, who has attempted to serve as a buffer between Anne and the rest of the world. Marva Hicks' subtle yet stoic performance fills Betty with dignity and just a tad of sarcasm, reminiscent of the valuable role played by Thelma Ritter in so many films.

Cynthia D. Barker's Kate is the harried local producer/director responsible for the revival, who is adamantly insistent that Pete is the perfect person to introduce Anne's history-making turn to new audiences. Barker manages to reflect Kate's determination amidst the ultimatums and insults that fly especially once Pete appears in Anne's hotel suite. Anne assumes that Pete is merely some low-talent local that Kate has offered a break, but she is totally unprepared for the young woman's modern take no prisoners attitude and determination as well as her commitment to the project.

Shakirah DeMesier is a delight as Pete, willing to challenge whatever misperceptions Anne has about her and share her own story about what she has had to face in her own life as a single mother that have prevented her from completely realizing her dreams. The fact that Anne has lived outside of this country for the past 20+ years contributes to her humorous unawareness of the jargon and catch phrases that have come to characterize the more public roles that young Black women play in the contemporary.

At the same time Cleage shows that the frustrations that led Anne to devise her performance piece a generation ago are similar to the barricades that Pete has encountered in her young life, a consideration that ultimately allows the two women to bond, or at least acknowledge their similar but ultimately unfulfilled journeys.

Late in the evening, DeMeisner demonstrates Pete's ability to expertly deliver a monologue, but instead of choosing one of Wilson's men to quote, she picks one spoken by Rose, the main female character in Wilson's "Fences" and offers it superbly and stunningly. This clinches any questions about the young woman's talent, but it makes one wonder why, in her quest to empower women over Wilson's focus on male figures, Anne herself did not focus on Wilson's females in her show, to elevate those characters from Wilson's pages.

Anne's hotel suite is succinctly designed with the modern blandness of a nonetheless upscale guest room, while Kara Harmon's costumes neatly convey the personalities of the characters involved, most particularly in capturing Pete's natural flamboyance and Anne's staid aplomb for a woman who was once willing to shed all for her art. Clay Benning's sound design accommodates hallway footsteps and radio music of varying volumes, whether welcomed or not by those in the room. Michelle Habeck's lighting allows the suite to reflect the passing of the afternoon, while Lindsay Ewing's stylish wigs contribute to the believability of the four characters.

For information and tickets, please contact the Hartford Stage Box office at (860) 527-5151 or by visiting HartfordStage.org.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson, Hartford Stage



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