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Cuttin' Up

A major part of the barber shop experience is waiting your turn. We'll get to you.

Ed Wheeler as Howard, Peter Jay Fernandez as Andre, Psalmayene 24 as Rudy. Photo by Scott Suchman
E. Wheeler, P. J. Fernandez and Psalmayene 24
(Photo: Scott Suchman)

Incorporating forty-five wigs into two and a half hours is no easy feat, but Arena Stage takes on the challenge and wins with the world premiere of Cuttin' Up. Commissioned by the theatre and based upon Craig Marberry's book Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops, the play is a travelogue through African American history and a peek into the barber shop's role as a community resource and gathering place for male friendships and camaraderie.

Written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright who directed last season's Señor Discretion Himself, the show is a fast-paced ride that melds upbeat music with great wit and home-style warmth. Centering on three District of Columbia barbers -- each from a different generation -- the story uses hairstyles to discuss different aspects of life and African American culture. Howard (Ed Wheeler) is the fussy elder barber, who owns the shop the three cut hair in. Peter Jay Fernandez is Andre, the man with a secret pain, who drifts across the country trying to escape his emotions. And Rudy (played by Psalmayene 24) is the perpetually late younger generation stylist, who is just starting out and learning through the stories the other men share.

Entering the shop are an assortment of customers, community leaders, criminals and memories. And with each new person comes a new hairstyle and very often a new musical inspiration and extremely witty or poignant line. The ever changing hairstyles run the gamut from Afros to dreads to fades to shaves, and more. The wigs (wonderfully designed by Jon Aitchison) become as much a part of the performance as the acting, in fact. At the sight of the hair, many an audience member laughs at their own memory or experience with a hairstyle.

Shaun L. Motley's barber shop set has a look right out of the late sixties or early seventies. The use of a see-through, mirrored, back wall provides some inspired ways of providing reminiscences. Michael Gilliam's lighting offers some nice touches that offset moments. And Emilio Sosa's costumes accent the wigs, never upstaging the hair.

Mr. Wheeler as the patriarchal Howard is the emotional rock, while Mr. Fernandez' Andre is the tie between the old and new, which keeps the story connected. Mr. 24 provides the comic relief as he tries to understand the two older barbers, while still developing his own identity.

The ensemble which includes: Duane Boutté, Carl Cofield, Bill Grimmette and Marc Damon Johnson do a terrific job quick changing and melding into one character after another. Marva Hicks plays all the women who are involved with the various men. She also offers several sensational vocal selections of familiar tunes as singer Karen Neisome, Andre's ex-wife.

Cuttin' Up is definitely a feel good show. The substance, where there is any, is not too deep and the rudimentary plot line has been included simply to link the various stories from the book together. Thus if you are seeking thought-provoking work, you would do better to look elsewhere, since this play is designed to push your emotional buttons and have you walking out of the theatre feeling good and humming a song. It's biggest drawback, though, is the consistent breaking of the fourth wall. The constant side speeches to the audience become somewhat distracting and break the flow of the story, coming off as more sermon than discussion.

That criticism aside, there are several golden moments, both humorous and sobering, in the show. The men covertly discussing sex as a woman sits waiting in the shop for her boyfriend or then clustering around the TV to watch a daytime soap are some of the funniest. Meanwhile, the scene where a gay man walks into a barber shop in San Francisco during the outset of the AIDS epidemic or the arrival of a poor, single mother seeking a way to expose her children to images of successful black men, provide some serious touches.

If you are looking for pure entertainment, then Cuttin' Up will have you laughing, crying and singing. I imagine Arena Stage has another hit on its hands á la Crowns, which by the way, was also based upon a book by Mr. Marberry.

Cuttin' Up
by Charles Randolph-Wright based upon the book Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops by Craig Marberry
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
with Peter Jay Fernandez, Ed Wheeler, Psalmayene 24, Duane Boutté, Carl Cofield, Bill Grimmette, Marc Damon Johnson, Marva Hicks
Set Design: Shaun L. Motley
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Sound Design: Timothy M. Thompson
Hair/Wigs: Jon Aitchison
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Arena Stage Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth Street SW
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE, WED & SUN @7:30, THU, FRI, & SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $41 - $60
Opening 11/04/05, closing 01/01/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 11/17/05 performance
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