Lithe and animated, Karen Pittman fills the Kitchen Theatre with a dozen or more characters as she brings to life playwright-actor Charlayne Woodard’s adolescence in Neat, playing through this weekend.
Neat is the second of Woodard’s autobiographical solo works to be performed at the Kitchen. Pretty Fire dealt with Woodard’s young childhood, especially her summers down south with her grandparents and her relationship to her sister. The ‘pretty fire’ of the title refers to a cross burning, which the child could only interpret as ‘pretty.’ Neat jumps forward to the teenager growing up in a middle-class black household in Albany, NY in the later 60s.
Neat is also the nickname of her Aunt Beneatha, who is brain-damaged as the result of an accidental childhood poisoning. The narrative, while rooted in Charlayne’s viewpoint, deftly entwines two coming of age stories as we also experience the upheaval in Neat’s life when she and grandma come to live in Albany and when, later, the eternally ‘innocent’ Neat gets pregnant—and proves to definitely have a mind of her own.
Charlayne’s attitudes toward Neat shift from childhood adoration for a fearless, tough playmate, to teenage embarrassment to be associated with someone different and “uncool”, to a growing awareness of Neat as both a fellow rebel negotiating a bewildering, sometimes hostile world and as someone completely separate and fully human.
This arc is set neatly against the burgeoning political awareness of Charlayne, who moves from wanting desperately to belong to a group of white and Jewish girls at her school to fighting to bring black literature to her high school library and adopting Angela Davis as a role model—plus her own brushes with sex, boys, and being ‘bad’.
Under Sarah Lampert Hoover’s typically adroit direction, Pittman makes each incident burst to life, with fine attention to shifting ages and attitudes. Sections set a the high school auditorium under assault by riot police, a teenage party, and a blizzard are particularly breathtaking. Pittman/Hoover also have plenty of fun with the men occasionally portrayed (Pittman has an amazing pitch range, with a velvety baritone at her command.)
A graceful set and lights from E.D. Intemann, with a backdrop of windows with distinctly different white curtains, and a floor flooded with colorful streaks that hint at red clay nd sky alike, catches the tenor of Woodard’s script superbly.
Not so the thick soundscape of Lesley Greene, which verves away from the theatrical into the cinematic. This desire to “enact” each possible detail also seeps into Pittman’s performance and pacing.
The Kitchen production, beautiful, funny and moving as it can be, falls short of Woodard’s writing. There is a strong element of magical realism in this story, and the tone eludes director and performer in this case, most evident in the uncertain cadences which end each act.
I believe it is in part a distrust of simple storytelling; an unwillingness to back off the ‘acting’ and keep a narrative voice at center; a distrust, for lack of a better word, simplicity. Sometimes the language itself is enough to carry us into another world as an audience. Yet plays at the Kitchen, while most often engaging, too often favor bold over intimate in their delivery. Sometimes less is really more.
Yet still Neat is a rich story, anchored by a strong performance and worth a trip.