NEATly Done: AART Triumphs Again

Nothing tentative or unsophisticated about the programming at the DFW region’s new professional theatre company, African American Repertory Theater, located at the intimate The Corner Theatre in Desoto.  On the heels of their first well-received, strong ensemble production at this venue, “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller, the company just opened the award-winning “Neat”, featuring actress Regina Washington and directed by William (Bill) Earl Ray, who also directed “A Soldier’s Play.”

“Neat” is a ‘play with one actor’ portraying a myriad of characters, written by nationally celebrated LA stage and screen star Charlayne Woodard. Revealing an autobiographical slice of life brimming with humor and pathos, Woodard weaves together pivotal events of her life with those of a brain-damaged but loving aunt, against the vivid background of social and racial upheavals of recent times. Told in an oral tradition style that stretches back hundreds of years from African traditions to Diaspora, Woodard’s play allows the audience to experience the moments portrayed with a clarity, depth and poignancy a straightforward telling would have missed. Described as “powerful, heartbreaking and beautiful” in a 1997 New York Times review, this play showcases the virtuosity of a versatile actress while effectively paying tribute to the older aunt who had such positive impact on the playwright’s life. Two act’s worth of focused energy, memorable characterizations and entrancing story-telling….

Bill Ray set this AART production on a nearly bare stage awash with pastel hues, with unbleached muslin sheeting screens tenderly framing the fully used acting space. Each scene is foreshadowed with a time-relevant photographic projection on the upstage screen and accented with musical accompaniment complimenting the setting. Mr. Ray’s direction creates a natural ease in the telling of the story while heightening the actor’s portrayal of pivotal life moments.  Not a movement to spare, not a pause held too long—the production is minimalist yet full-blown, choreographed yet spontaneous, intimate yet universal.

Ms. Washington reveals vast chameleon skills as an actress, from enlivening an illiterate grandmother puffing on her pipe to strutting as a cocky macho youth courting his prospective girlfriend to revealing the complex yet simple reality lived by the brain-damaged aunt. She peoples her stage fully at all times—in one scene, it’s like magic to watch her solo performance “fill” a high school auditorium with terrified black students fleeing the savagery of baton-wielding white cops. In his NY Times review of the 1997 production, Lawrence Van Gelder refers to the “tragic inevitability” of the main character’s Aunt Neat. She is the constant loving thread that ties the play together, yet bittersweet premonition of Neat’s imminent demise lurks throughout. Ms. Washington’s portrayal leads us to that inevitable conclusion with dignity and transcendent strength. The audience may weep for the life lost yet smile for the many lives to whom Neat brought joy, self-knowledge and peace.

“Neat”, was originally developed at Seattle Repertory Theatre and produced at Manhattan Theatre Club, where it received the Irving and Blanche Laurie Theatre Vision Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination at Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.  AART’s refreshing, professional production provides the opportunity for audiences in the DFW region to enjoy the play’s lyrical artistry close to home. “Neat” runs through November 23.
Tickets:  972-572-0998, http://www.aareptheater.com

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