Don't you dare call it the 'Chitlin Circuit'

With their sequined dancers, cardboard characters, and savage beauty-shop banter, Shelly Garrett's comedy plays don't get any respect from critics. But black Dallas knows better.

It's a weekend night, and Brandi, a honey-skinned, bitty-bodied woman in snakeskin shorts and go-go boots--just one step above hoochie-mama status--is holding forth on the finer points of man-hunting.

While sitting at a nightclub table with her two girlfriends, Cynthia and Brenda, she regales them with sure-fire methods for luring men across the room to sit beside her. With the subtlety of a street-corner 'ho, she slowly crosses and uncrosses her legs while eyeing some fictitious player on the other side of the club.

If that doesn't work, she says, she's got another foolproof scheme. Brandi sticks her finger in her drink and swirls it around. Then she takes it and slides it sl-o-o-o-wly into her mouth, pauses, and removes it with equal savor. Makes men come running, she says.

Cynthia looks at her incredulously. "You're just a nasty little thing, aren't you?" she says.

The audience laughs in agreement. Brandi's sexpot antics aren't for real. But then, much of what's on stage this April night belongs to the surreal. The 1,700-seat Dallas Convention Center Theater has been transformed into The Jam, a fashionable nightclub for the young, black, and well-dressed set. A lighted cityscape rises above the stage, bathing it in a shiny glow.

Brandi, Cynthia, and Brenda are out for a night on the town. The three women are types, from their names to their outfits. Wise-cracking Cynthia is the friendly, noisy one, wearing baggy black pants and a modest blouse. Her honey-blonde hair is piled high in a beehive. Sex-crazed Brandi is the maneater, dressed in skimpy clothes. Her long tresses descend in tousled curls. Preppie Brenda is the classy one, clad in a black miniskirt suit with fur-trimmed jacket and matching hat. Her hair is pulled into a severe bun.

Brandi and Cynthia talk about men--how to find them and keep them, particularly those with money. For Brenda, the conversation is academic. She's got a man--Dominic, a rich, successful singer. She waxes rhapsodic about him.

"I'm just so lucky," she coos to her friends in an ersatz Black American Princess voice.

Brandi won't be satisfied until she snags one for herself. "He's got to have mo-huh-honey," she says, rubbing her fingers together while tossing her hair. "Or it's boom--disappear."

She holds up her palm. "Gimme some credit."
Cynthia slaps her palm. "Credit approved."
As the women continue to talk, the background music cranks up.

Suddenly, there are dancers--seven of them--scantily clad in gold-sequined hot pants, matching cropped jackets, and shiny black go-go boots. They sashay down the aisle straight through the audience, gyrating their hips, snaking their hands, stopping every eight or so steps to allow folks to get a really good look.

Their non sequitur appearance is a trademark flourish for the show's writer, producer, and director, Dallas-born Shelly Garrett. He watches the audience from behind the sound board, nervously gauging their reactions to his latest stage creation, What Kind of Love is This?. He surveys a crowd of his people--mainly black women ages 25 to 54. There are some men there, albeit reluctantly, dragged in by a girlfriend or spouse. Garrett throws in the dancers as a juicy little morsel, just for them.

And they love it. The men hoot and catcall to the dancers, who flirt outrageously with those in the aisle seats. The women love the three female characters, particularly Cynthia, who always comes up with a sharp quip to put Brandi in her place.

It also helps that the show has a big-name star--Jeffrey Osborne--who plays Brenda's boyfriend Dominic. Osborne made his mark as an R&B crooner in the '70s and '80s. When he walked out on stage, dressed in a military-esque outfit with another woman as an accessory, the audience knew two things: They were going to be treated to some hot singing, and there was gonna be trouble--delicious, other-woman trouble.

Garrett's shows live and die by audience reaction. He'll change lines and cut scenes if he doesn't get the raucous response he's always seeking. And he brings all of his traveling stage shows to Dallas to test what works; the city is a good proving ground before he sends a show on a nationwide tour. In Dallas, Garrett says, people will tell you the truth.

"And the truth is, Dallas loved it," he says about his latest play.
But not without a few changes, including losing one song and slashing a long monologue.

Garrett has made his reputation creating this brand of touring comedy play. Commonly called the "Chitlin Circuit," the shows are overwrought and broadly comic, and they feature lines that bear all the nuance of a screeching siren. The characters are types--the sexy one, the friendly one, the dingy one, the strong one, the no-good man. Like its tamer cousin, the gospel play, plots are B-movie standard with twists as big as sailors' knots. It's like watching a low-budget sitcom on stage.

While the crowds cheer, the critics sneer. They decry this supposed dumbing-down of black theater, for which patrons have always been scarce. They wince at the amateur acting, the crude staging, and what they see as a return to minstrel-show sensibilities.

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