Lyric's "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning": Weak End

Jasmine Rush, Meagen Dilworth, Keith Mascoll & Cloteal L. Horne in "Sat.Night/Sun.Morning"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

The current production from Lyric Stage Company, Katori Hall's “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning”, raises pressing issues. That's “pressing” as in the historically common process of straightening the hair of African Americans. Hall has stated that she believes that because she is an actor as well as a playwright, she tends to base her characters on real people, and her play initially seems to succeed at capturing a group of believable people in a setting that is sure to prove revelatory for many audience members, namely a Memphis beauty salon in 1945. She spends the first act presenting the beauty parlor as a cultural center, where gossip and community information provide a source for both camaraderie and activism, through the interactions of seven women. As Directed by Dawn M. Simmons, the setting is conducive to the playwright's satirical intent. Beneath the superficial level of heated metal combs and harsh chemicals, there are a number of other pressing issues threatening to surface.

Miss Mary (Jasmine Rush), proprietress of Miss Mary's Press n' Curl, at one point asks “who's ready to get burnt?”, which can be taken several ways. There's the literal sense of the cruel physical procedure, as exemplified by two of her boarders, Taffy (Meagen Dilworth) and Mabel (Cloteal L. Horne), not to mention customers Dot (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and Jackie (Jackie Davis). But there's also the more metaphorical sense as in the portrayals of vulnerable fellow boarder Leanne (Jade Guerra) and new arrival Gladys (Tasia A. Jones). Their almost impenetrably female world is from time to time interrupted by the appearance of their mailman Buzz (Keith Mascoll), whose polio rendered him undraftable, and remembered images of Leanne's enlisted beau Bobby (Omar Robinson). For the most part, this is clearly not a man's world, as evidenced by some of the best lines, such as Mary's rule that “boarders shall not bitch” or her depiction of her salon as “half fixin' hair, half fixin' poor souls”, or Mabel's contention: “men always better when they away”. It's also of course not an integrated world in those times, as demonstrated by their keen awareness of “colorism”, prejudice against darker skins, with lighter skins associated with privilege and beauty.

The depiction of a world totally alien to the majority of theatergoers will be fascinating for them as it is familiar for the minority, at least for the duration of the first act, which qualifies as insightful social satire (though a good deal of dialogue is lost in the dialects, especially in the rapid fire banter at the very beginning). The problem is that, with the arrival of the second act, the playwright has seemingly transported us to a different play, more melodramatic than ironic. There's also a jarring scene of magical realism that is inconsistent with the integrity of the play as a whole. This shift of tone is also accompanied by a shift in focus as a new central character emerges, though this, and a major reveal that accompanies it, won't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention to how Hall and the actors telegraph it. Fortunately, the whole cast is so fine that it doesn't ruin the effect of the author's purposes. As Hall has also noted, it's about not trying to “live up to some other standard; the heart of this play (is to) be true to yourself in all its manifestations”. The technical crew are all in keeping with Lyric's usual level, from the wonderful Scenic Design by Mac Young, to the Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Ian W. King and Sound Design by Kelsey Jarboe.

Hall's play (as is true in her other work, “The Mountaintop”) is evidence that a major talent is developing and deserves to be heard. Though it stops, rather than ends, in a disappointingly flat manner, it will have been a worthy and welcome exposure to a hitherto unexplored segment of our country's formative years. Sometimes the devil is in the details of everyday life that mirror the revolutionary winds of social change. Pressing issues, indeed.

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