By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As the latest small company to jump into Dallas' busy, diverse theater community, Upstart is off to a solid start with Topdog/Underdog.
The uncluttered stage teems with lively characters in Charlayne Woodard's autobiographical story-play Neat. Actress Regina Washington portrays all of them—young, old, male, female—in the exuberant production closing out the first season of the African American Repertory Theater in residence at DeSoto's Corner Theatre.
The title character is born in the first scene, a daughter of black parents in Jim Crow-era Savannah. When baby Neat falls ill suddenly, she and her desperate mother are turned away from a whites-only hospital, causing medical complications that will stunt the girl's mental development. The uplifting story of the rest of Neat's life unfolds in brief, sweet chapters told by "Charlayne," a younger niece from up North who doesn't realize until she's a teenager that there's anything wrong with Aunt Neat.
As the years tick by, Charlayne works in her own funny stories about fitting in as one of the few black kids in a Jewish neighborhood in Albany. In the 1960s, she's radicalized, in politics and hairdos. "I went from JFK to Huey P. Newton, from a flip to a 'fro," says the teenage Charlayne after watching white cops beat high schoolers protesting the lack of black history texts in the library. When Neat comes to live with her family, Charlayne's embarrassed at first. Later she comes to understand the profound lessons to be learned from the pure-at-heart Neat.
Directed by AART co-founder William Earl Ray, gracefully choreographed by La' Hunter, Neat is poignantly, beautifully performed by Washington. Bouncing across the stage like a sprite, Washington is so light on her feet, she seems to sprout wings and soar above the floor. There's not a moment she's not wonderful.