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.

And yet these plays, and hundreds like them, have captured the hearts and dollars of black communities around the country--and have become wildly popular in Dallas, particularly in the last seven years. Dallas has become such a fertile market for these plays that during the spring and fall seasons, at least six such productions will work their way through town.

There's an appealing simplicity to these shows, which bear a hefty $25 to $30 ticket price. The audience knows precisely what it's getting for its money. There is no pretense or hidden agendas here. The message--if there even is one--is always the same: Jesus will save you, and a good woman always wins in the end. There are no efforts to uplift racial consciousness or to provide fodder for philosophical discussion. Garrett's plays exist solely to entertain.

"Everybody in there is grown," Garrett says. "If they don't know stuff by now, who am I to teach it to them? I want you to come in there, take your hair off, put it down there on the seat, take your shoes off, and have the time of your life for two hours."

This isn't the-a-tah but the-A-'er, a place where the ordinary Joe who doesn't know his August Wilson from his Mary Wilson can come in, sit down, and feel comfortable. It is filled with familiar places, like beauty shops, clubs, church, or Mama's living room , and with familiar faces, either in the form of once-famous singers or television stars, or in stock characters. The acting is melodramatic, played for broad reactions and easy laughs. The singing is brassy and arpeggio-filled. The shows rely on huge promotional pushes to fill the house and keep people coming throughout the season.

What Kind of Love is This? is Garrett's latest musical comedy. Osborne treats the audience to a rendition of his 1986 hit You Should Be Mine (the Woo-woo Song). Then he turns to the audience: "Who out there wants to woo-woo for me?"

The crowd cheers, and people stand up to volunteer. Osborne takes a hand-held microphone and works the crowd--getting men, women, and children to sing for him. Most sound like you'd expect, nervous folks with quavering voices. Although there is one woman--the very last singer--whose contralto voice brought many in the audience to their feet. Osborne had to yank the microphone away from her; she nearly upstaged him.

Garrett admits afterward that the woman--his wardrobe mistress--was a plant. He always puts her out in the audience to ensure that at least one woo-wooer can sing. This sort of audience participation helps pack the house.

But for every full house for someone like Garrett, there are empty seats at struggling black community theater groups such as the Jubilee Theater in Fort Worth.

At a recent Jubilee performance, Augusta Peacock holds forth in her sitting room. She and her gossip companions savage those not present in a tone that's a mixture of mock shock and titillation. Their dress is 20th-century Harlem during the Jazz Age--tight sheath dresses, fringed lounge jackets. But the language is 18th-century highbrow.

"Come, come, you are severe upon the widow," says Bennie Backbite in a mock defense of the woman they've been delightedly slandering. "It is not that she paints so ill--but when she has finished her face, she joins it on so badly to her neck that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur sees at once that the head's modern, though the trunk's antique."

"Well said, nephew," crows his uncle, the Rev. Crabtree.
It hasn't quite the ring of "Gimme some credit." But the sentiments are the same.

Dirty Laundry is based on a 300-year-old English classic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan called The School for Scandal. It's about juicy gossip and its consequences. Jubilee Theater artistic director Rudy Eastman knows that the play--particularly its language--will test the patience of modern audiences. He points this out in a little speech before the beginning of the performance.

"The dialogue will challenge you," he warns. "But if you listen, you will get it."

The audience itself barely fills the 100-seat theater. It is an upscale crowd, conservatively well-dressed. It is also racially diverse--about half of the crowd is white. And they take Eastman's exhortation to heart. They laugh at the funny parts, which are many. They get it.

Like the Garrett play, Dirty Laundry is a broad, overwrought melodrama that resembles in many ways a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy screwball comedy. The difference is that the actors let the audience in on the joke. The players, some of whom have performed the works of Shakespeare as well as noted black playwright August Wilson, directly address the audience at times during the play, spouting platitudes or giving knowing looks because the script calls for them.

There is no such allowance for irony in Garrett's comedy shows. If these plays edge toward farce at all, it's because of bad scripts, tacky staging, or some truly godawful acting.

But musical comedies like Garrett's--or the equally popular counterpart, gospel shows, also known as "Mama plays"--attract the big crowds. It is a phenomenon that Eastman notes with a bit of envy. Sure, his productions are challenging and artful; but while integrity may bring personal satisfaction, it certainly doesn't put butts in seats.

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