“A black woman is both queen and warrior…” says Bell Grand Lake to her daughter. In heartbreaking lines of spoken word she explains the reason behind the uneven treatment she’s given her two children– the need for a black woman to learn toughness and strength at a very young age, and the need for a black man to be supported and defended by his mother. Bell Grand Lake and Aberdeen Calumet are the best friends, business partners, and lead characters in Victory Gardens’ latest production. A Wonder in My Soul, an original play written by ensemble playwright Marcus Gardley, is imbued with penetrating and provocative racial and familial themes and an epigrammatic script.
The 2008 presidential election plays backdrop to the narrative of a beauty parlor forced out of a South Side neighborhood due to gentrification, crime and personal financial challenges. Within this narrative an almost entirely female cast explores sacrifice in female relationships, the challenges of single motherhood, and the gentle balance between asserting independence and supporting community. Music plays a role in both the plot and the performative aspect of the play with R & B, spirituals, and soul interwoven into the scenes. Greta Oglesby as Birdie (Aberdeen Calumet) and Jacqueline Williams as Bell (Bell Grand Lake) have a wonderful stage presence and great chemistry. Their banter, jabs and wisecracks are delivered near flawlessly, and they carry their singing scenes well too. Camille Robinson playing a young Birdie has a crisp and clear voice, and Donica Lynn as Paulina treats the audience with her dynamic voice tempered by her character’s self denial. Oglesby, Williams, Robinson and Lynn harmonize literally and figuratively. Jaret Landon’s musical direction felt careful and restrained, which was perfect for a play with such a rich script.
For the most part I found myself torn between laughter at clever one-liners (“Do you take your coffee black, beige, or diabetes?”) and humorous cultural references (Jesse Jackson’s odd overuse of rhyming in political speeches), and tearing up over the desperate decisions characters are forced to make. Marcus Gardley’s book is impressive and mostly successful, though there were some small issues amplified by the rest of the play’s being so accomplished. At times the script relied on lazy cliches (Starbucks + Whole Foods = gentrification) and there were small errors in verisimilitude that nagged at the authenticity of the play’s Chicago setting. There were metaphors that should have been left as implied and not directly stated (washing and styling hair = baptism).
Instead of trusting in the strength of the writing and the intuitive ability of the audience, a character would pop up and offer plot summary when scenes jumped along through a storyline. Linda Bright Clay as First Lady struggled to carry off some of the overly hammy bits of comedic relief written for her stuffy Republican character. Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr. as Lafayette struggled to deliver the grandiose dramatic monologue he’s given mid-way through the second act. Gardley drew a powerful plotline placing Lafayette as a sympathetic humanitarian and white collar criminal, but this side story wasn’t given the stage time necessary to tease it out. It felt stuffed in and Freelon Jr. was forced to holler out his self defense in exaggerated desperation. Bright Clay and Freelon Jr. along with artistic director Chay Yew made the best of these minor faults in Gardley’s book.
Despite my criticisms, Victory Gardens’ latest production is entirely worth seeing. It’s laugh out loud funny, culturally relevant and provocative. Not every day do you find a play that is all these things while being a local production written by a local playwright featuring excellent vocal performances. The production is worth attending for Johnny Jamison’s wig design and flawless transitioning, which are veritable magic acts within the play.
A Wonder in My Soul runs at Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., until March 12. Tickets are available online and at the box office ranging in price from $20 to $60.