Thanks Imagine a play that is one part August Wilson and two parts an African-American variation on “Steel Magnolias” and you will have some sense of what Marcus Gardley has concocted in his new play, “A Wonder in My Soul,” now receiving an ebullient world premiere production by Victory Gardens Theatre.
‘A WONDER IN MY SOUL’ Recommended When: Through March 12 Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Tickets: $15 – $60 Info: www.victorygardens.org Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Opposite ends of the rainbow in terms of both style and racial identity you might say, and you would be correct. After all, Wilson remains the poet laureate of 20th century African-American life, and “Steel Magnolias” is the sweet and sentimental work of a white Southerner writing about the bonding among a group of white women. But look more closely and you will see how the similarities outweigh the differences, and how this hybrid actually becomes endearing and soulful — if at times predictable — entertainment.
Gardley’s play, zestily directed by Chay Yew, takes us to Chicago’s South Side and the hair salon co-owned for decades by two women who have known each other since their teens: Bell Grand Lake (the always superb Jacqueline Williams, whose monologues about her germaphobia, and about black women’s hair styling, are bound to become instant audition staples), prides herself in her ability to connect with people, and Aberdeen Calumet (the ever-impressive Greta Oglesby), a former singer and mother of a grown son and daughter, is the acknowledged “artist” when it comes to styling African-American hair.
The two women, who came north from Mississippi together (their younger editions are winningly played by Donica Lynn and Camille Robinson), and who have been through a great deal over the years, are now facing another crisis. Their shop is in a neighborhood that has gone through many changes and a recent crime problem, but is now in the process of being condo-ized and gentrified, and they don’t have the money to buy their building or hold on to their business.
Aberdeen’s adored son, Lafayette (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.), is a well-connected do-gooder (and a bit of a hustler), who they believe has come up with the money they need. But, as it turns out, he has some big problems of his own, and his sister, a police officer under-appreciated by her mother, knows all about them.
Far more than the essential plot elements here are the resilience and humor of the characters who invariably break out into full-voice song (standards mixed with original music by Jaret Landon). There also is a wholly sensational subsidiary character, First Lady (Linda Bright Clay), the well-to-do preacher’s wife and devoted customer who is a staunch Republican, makes no apologies for her political convictions and has a great sense of humor about it all. First Lady is a real piece of work, and Clay is clearly having a ball playing her. (Robinson plays her young, overburdened assistant with perfect comic panache.)
Gardley (whose very different plays, “The House That Will Not Stand” and “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” also have had productions at Victory Gardens), can be somewhat heavy-handed with his mentions of all the traditional elements of racism black women have faced over the centuries. There is no need to drop such references into his characters’ casual conversations as if they had not already lived through and absorbed it all; they certainly do not need to remind each other of such things. That aside, the play’s richness of language, larger-than-life characters, deep-veined humor and consoling spirit speak loudly and clearly. There is a wonder in these souls.