High notes, low theater
In 1997, former Dallas Observer staffer Kaylois Henry wrote a story examining a national phenomenon of African-American theater. Some North Texas and national black stage artists quoted in it took umbrage at the nickname that these brassy, superficial, but successful touring musicals have earned -- "the chitlin circuit." That phrase originally was applied to the rhythm-and-blues package shows that traveled the South during the first half of the century. It had been reapplied (and not derogatorily, at least not at first, from within the black community) to extravaganzas like Beauty Shop and Mama, I Want to Sing. Dallas native Shelly Garrett has become a wealthy impresario serving black audiences with these two kinds of loosely plotted, broadly acted revues -- the first, full of sexy dancers, ballsy divas, and sassy snap queens, the second featuring sweaty, belted testimonials to the transformational power of Jesus Christ.
One of the individuals quoted in the piece was Rudy Eastman, artistic director of Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre. Eastman and his company are about to launch their 18th season, so they clearly must be doing something right, but he did express some concern that the theatrical diet of many African-American ticketbuyers consisted solely of the chitlin circuit menu. It's not possible for Eastman to have maintained a theater this long without having a businessman's instincts operating somewhere in his gray matter -- he restaged Jubilee's version of the so-called "Mama play" (those slain-in-the-spirit musicals) called God's Trombones to great success last year. And Jubilee's current show, Attitude, Girlfriend, Attitude, fits with somewhat more subtlety and class into the genre of Garrett's aforementioned Beauty Shop.
I saw one of the so-called "chitlin circuit" shows at Dallas Convention Center several years back -- Millie Jackson's Young Man, Older Woman. It was presented on a much bigger, gaudier scale and infused with radio-ready musical styles such as hip-hop and urban contemporary. Typical of Jackson's "black and blue" rap style, it was also more aggressively, explicitly sexual in its dialogue and choreography. The style of director-choreographer Eastman and his longtime collaborator, composer-instrumentalist Joe Rogers, seems to be that a wink is infinitely more alluring than a grope. Although Attitude, Girlfriend, Attitude features its moments of bawdiness, Eastman, Rogers, and the cast appropriate a more retro feel for the music and movement in this fast-paced show. Think Motown, Stax, and Chess rather than Def Jam, Death Row, and Interscope. Look no further than the sardonic choral commentaries of six red-jacketed, sunglasses-wearing male singers crooning and doo-wopping through the catfighting of four female friends to locate this revue's groove, which is buttermilk-smooth and ice-box-cool with the exception of a couple roof-raising spirituals.
But even though Attitude, Girlfriend, Attitude is wittier and more discriminating than the blinding, sequined leers of a Young Man, Older Woman, it is structurally as unstable, as rickety as the national tours from which it seems to be taking tips. Joe Rogers and longtime Jubilee scribe diannetucker wrote this show based on an original, nonmusical script of hers called simply Girlfriends. The story concerns four women (Carolyn Hatcher, La'Trice D. Wilson, Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton, Victoria Morgan) who rush to the hospital bedside of a longtime friend (Nekki Griffin-Williams) after she is in a car wreck. The married invalid friend is an amnesiac and drifts in and out of consciousness, but her quartet of supporters discovers that there was another man injured in the car with her. A storm of speculation gathers over the recuperating woman's head as these friends transform into vultures picking her carcass for gossipy clues.
Attitude, Girlfriend, Attitude is really just an excuse for some expert singing of often hilarious lyrics written by Joe Rogers, who provides live keyboard accompaniment. That's a good enough excuse for you to catch it -- if you're prepared to allow a lot of the spoken passages to drift up over your head and out of the theater, unanchored as they are to anything substantial this show might have to say about friendship, betrayal, and how our self-images are often based more on what we think our friends think of us, rather than their true opinions. Eastman, Rogers, and diannetucker step right up to the edge of these universal themes and then barely stick their big toes in. As enjoyable as the off-the-cuff cutting-up can be here, the episodic chunks of it fall to the floor with an echoing clamor at the play's close, a hand-holding session around the hospital bedside followed by a rousing affirmation called "Old Friends." Because the show just stops without warning after about two hours and 15 minutes, neither we nor the characters get cleansed of some of their more nefarious rumor-mongering, outright lies, and pleasure-taking in the misery of purported friends. We can't help but leave the theater unsatisfied and with a slightly sour aftertaste in our mouths. Jubilee Theatre ends the proceedings with a whimpering moral lesson that doesn't teach us anything.
Attitude, Girlfriend, Attitude has plenty of the title spirit to spare, and when the four lead actresses lift their exalted voices to the ceiling, you get an eargasmic sense of all the wonderful, poignant stuff their characters are protecting with the armor they wear in the world. Unfortunately, much of their dialogue feels like stopgap material between the tunes.
At press time, performances of the show were sold out through August 15, and the final extended weekend was selling briskly too, so maybe there are lessons of the "chitlin circuit" that theaters ignore at their peril. But wouldn't it be smashing if audiences got naughty kicks and a crafted, compelling story at the same performance?
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