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.

"This audience we are catering to wants to hear singing, and they want to get a feel for the show," he says. The shows can't get too "Broadwayish"--meaning too far afield of the black here-and-now.

"These people aren't going to sit up there and watch Cats or Phantom of the Opera," Wash says. "It can't hold their interest."

The circuit-show world is that of the inexperienced: amateur writers, directors, actors, and audiences. Garrett is an example of the novice playwright-director-promoter taking on the task. Garrett, who lived in Dallas until he was nine, wrote his first play after getting a taste of vanity theater. He starred as an actor in the autobiography of Compton millionaire Dootsie Williams, whose company produced Earth Angel. Williams wrote the play. But Garrett says it was poorly written, and hardly anyone showed up. Williams told Garrett that if he thought he could do a better job, to do so--and promptly fired him.

Garrett then wrote Beauty Shop in six days. Beauty Shop told the tale of four hairdressers in the Pamper Me Salon. It incorporated a few tropes that would become classic Garrett: the strong, usually full-figured black female, who takes the brunt of the jokes but wins in the end; a bitchy, sometimes gay character who says what the audience wants; the sexpot; and the reasonable, owner. In Beauty Shop, the full-figured stylist ultimately triumphs, getting the man--a rich, handsome, black gentleman--and the envy of her friends. The strong woman who wins in the end is a tribute to his mother, Garrett says. His mother accompanies him on all of his tours.

The gay character got the best lines, including a trademark snapping of fingers to emphasize a point that has become de rigeur in portrayals of black gay males. Beauty Shop's gay character also sparked the expression, "You all in my Kool-Aid and don't even know the flava!"

Beauty Shop was a monster hit, touring the Los Angeles area for two years before going across the country for another three. Although Garrett won't say how much he made from the show, figures between 15 and 25 million dollars have been bandied about by industry insiders.

Since then, Garrett has written six other plays, and he has two more in the works. None, however, has been as successful as Beauty Shop. That show gave him the name recognition and clout to fill 1,000- to 3,000-seat concert halls without having to sign on a has-been star--because Garrett's name is the marquee draw. He did bow to pressure and sign on Jeffrey Osborne for What Kind of Love is This?, he says, because "people are clamoring for it now."

His other basic formula for success is "production, production, production." Garrett says he makes sure the sets and costumes look terrific. Indeed, in the final wedding scene for What Kind of Love is This?, the dancers wore ankle-length, long-sleeved sequined dresses in various hues. Brenda wore a tight-fitting wedding dress with peek-a-boo cuts on the sides and a huge train.

"My stuff is well done," Garrett says. "My sets aren't thrown together. My shows have a lot of glitz in them. This is real important when you are entertaining an audience. People are tired of that old drudge stuff."

Garrett looks the part of the successful businessman. He's tall and handsome, with a honey-colored complexion and a barely lined face defying his fiftysomething years (he dodged the subject of his exact age, but says he has a 16-year-old daughter). For an interview, he dressed casually in walking shorts, a tank top, and sneakers. The clothes were all brand names. He sported his own bits of glitz: a tasteful gold link chain hung around his neck; and around his wrist, a gold, diamond-encrusted watch.

The circuit is now fairly bursting with plays, something Garrett can take credit for. The success of Beauty Shop and a gospel play called Mamma I Want to Sing sparked a whole new push for product in popular black theater. Would-be writers from around the country are coming up with plays every week, says Wash, the Dallas promoter. Their plays vary among gospel "preachments" with prodigal plots and foot-stomping revival songs; comedy shows with savage dialogue but happy endings; and variety shows that combine the singing with secular comedy.

Wash says there are about 30 shows currently in production nationwide. He says his company, ALW Entertainment, receives five or six calls a week from hopeful writer-directors hoping to bring their shows to Dallas or get Wash to produce it. The box office has spoken loudly, sparking what has amounted to a feeding frenzy within the genre. Garrett laments this increase in product, because it's spoiling the quality.

"Many of them are just about making money," Garrett says.
Making money, of course, is the exact criticism "legitimate" theater people lay at the feet of Garrett.

"The main difference in our plays [and Chitlin Circuit plays] is that our writers are trained to be writers," says King of the New Federal Theater. "Their commitment to the genre is, 'I am going to be a playwright.' It is not 'I am going to make a lot of money and go buy a house, cars, and clothes.'"

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