Vital Theatre Company just celebrated its first birthday, and its production of Shay Youngblood's stunning play "Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery" was a worthy cause for a celebration. Although Youngblood's play completely defies conventional theatrical dramaturgy like plot and character development, it does, however, offer a completely engaging, satisfying, and tremendously moving evening of theatre. Not to mention that it also received a superb, stellar production by Vital Theatre Company.
At the opening of Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, Daughter (Cheryl E. Simone) enters the home where she grew up. She explains to the audience that this home represents to her the many voices of the women who raised her and taught her the lessons she needed to learn. Through a series of fragmented, episodic vignettes we learn these moments. Youngblood weaves a tapestry of themes such as love, camaraderie, and survival with expert craftsmanship.
The completed fabric was as complex as it was compelling. The stories ranged from an ordinary bus ride turned into a racial horror show, to Maggie teaching Daughter how to wink at men, to Miss Tom talking about celebrating her 10-year marriage to another woman, to Aunt Mae's affair with Miss Lamama's husband, and finally to Daughter's own search for the tale of her mother Fannie Mae's demise.
Director Stephen Sunderlin showed a fluid and steady hand that allowed his actors to create a deep and rich world of story-telling. The acting in this production was outstanding, with no weak link. Monica J. Palmer's Maggie was a hilarious combination of prostitute and wounded survivor; Johnnie Mae's Aunt Mae and Geany Masai's Miss Lamama gave big, full performances with no false notes; Melody Cooper's Miss Tom was simple and yet very complex (she also gave a very different performance as the feminine Miss Shine); Gena Bardwell's Miss May was captivating; Vicky Lambert was very graceful as Fannie Mae; Kimberly "Q" Purnell was outstanding in the scene in the bus ride in which she turned from a woman full of self-righteousness into one full of intense fear after accidentally spitting out a bug into a white woman's face; Betty Vaughn's Big Mama was Mother Earth personified in a lovely performance; and finally, the play wouldn't have worked without Cheryl E. Simone's performance as Daughter, which by turns was funny, sad, and devastating.
The set was basically a rocking chair and a bare stage, and the lights were minimal but set the right tone for the proceedings.
Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery does not offer anything expected; it does, however, offer something else: an evening that leaves its viewer doing most of the searching. As Big Mama says in the play, "A story's like a map, you follow the lines and they'll take you somewhere."
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Copyright 2000 Andrès J. Wrath