For intrigued audiences, the title of Pearl Cleage’s new play—Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous—feels like a promise. One that, exuberantly, pays off within the first minute of the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City’s current production: a woman illustriously garbed in bejeweled head-wrap-and-caftan gazes out, crinkles her nose, throws her arms wide, and declares, “What a dump!”
Behind a storefront tucked into a corner of Gates Plaza on Brooklyn Avenue, we find ourselves in the Midtown Atlanta luxury-hotel suite of one Anna Campbell, an aging stage legend with a diva-quotient worthy of her Norma Desmond-esque ensemble. She and her longtime companion/fixer, the reassuringly grounded Betty, have just returned from a decades-long, self-imposed European exile, which began as an escape from the controversy surrounding Anna’s signature performance—Naked Wilson, a series of the late, great August Wilson’s male-character monologues that she performed entirely au naturel.
Now, after the big roles in Europe dwindled and Anna tried wetting her dry spell with too much alcohol, she has made a triumphant homecoming to perform Naked Wilson one last time—or so she thinks. Kate, a longtime Anna-fan who is producing a new women’s theatre festival (with the same title as our play), wishes to honor her idol with a lifetime achievement award and open the festival with Anna’s classic feminist critique of Wilson’s male-centric work—but with a different, younger performer. To make matters worse (in Anna’s well-made-up eyes), Kate—tasked with finding someone to perform all-nude—has cast an ingenue whose only stage and film work is of the pole and porn variety.
The pace quickens considerably with the arrival of “Pete”—she thinks her given name, Precious, is just too that—who first agrees to pretend that she is simply a “solo performer.” But the ruse quickly drops under Anna’s passive-aggressive questioning. The only thing that seems to perturb Anna more than Pete’s line of work is that her only encounter with Wilson’s work is the film version of Fences that she saw on television.
The four actors play off each other seamlessly under Ile Haggins’ direction. Paulette Dawn bursts with energy as Anna, in constant motion across her high-end hideout (all design credited to Damron Russel Armstrong). Karen Wright’s stoic Betty holds her ground—often planted downstage right, playing solitaire—wisely assessing the next moves as Anna, and then Kate (a delightfully nervy Briana Van Deusen) swirl around her. Markeyta L. Young’s Pete arrives as an imposing presence, but eventually disarms Anna (and the audience) with an unexpected vulnerability and perfect comic timing.
A one-act set over two days, the entire play takes place in Anna and Betty’s hotel suite (and with the constant crash of the Atlanta rain outside—or is that Wilson’s angry ghost?—it’s just as well). As such, there is plenty of living-room drama (and physical comedy), but also a lot of tell-don’t-show—and some of the offstage shenanigans we learn about second-hand are harder to swallow than others. Under scrutiny, the plot doesn’t always hold up.
But the strength of this work lies less in its story and more in its highly-credible and identifiable characters. The central standoff between Anna and Pete is a refreshing take on the clash of generations and class, and ultimately becomes a moving reflection on who gets to tell our stories, how stories get told—and when it’s time for old stories to evolve into something new. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Anna and Pete find common ground, as artists, and the promise of the title pays off again, in a different way.
“Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous,” a production of The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, runs through December 3 at 1216 Brooklyn Ave. For more information, visit www.brtkc.org.