Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery
nytheatre.com review by Kelly McAllister
February 12, 2005
Remember a few years back, when all the world was talking about the phrase “it takes a village”? Some made fun of it, some defended it, some had no idea what the hell all the fuss was about. Well, if you want to see a show that truly demonstrates the idea that it takes a village to raise children properly—that it takes community; that it takes friendship and trust and love and all sorts of people to make it through this life—then get yourself over to the McGinn/Cazale Theatre and see Shay Youngblood’s Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, presented by the Vital Theatre Company in an excellent revival of their 2000 production. When the show was done five years ago, Martin Denton had this to say: “Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery is a joyous, exuberant play… masterfully directed by Stephen Sunderlin and beautifully performed.” The same is true of the current production. Sunderlin’s directing is indeed masterful, and the cast is uniformly excellent.
The show is basically a coming-of-age story; a memory play narrated by Daughter, a young African American woman (played with quiet dignity and grace by Kimberly Hebert Gregory) whose parents weren’t around for most of her life. Subsequently, she is raised by a group of unforgettable ladies who, through their various quirks and talents, help her on her way to becoming a woman—to becoming a fully rounded human being. These surrogate mothers are led by Big Momma, a strong, kind, Bible-carrying matriarch played with a flair matched only by her vulnerability by Johnnie Mae. Ms. Mae is a pillar of strength, wisdom, and joy, delivering her lines with ease and conviction. Daughter lives with Big Momma and Aunt Mae, Big Momma’s sister, who is a little less pious than Momma. Aunt Mae is the wilder of the two—passionate and fun. As Aunt Mae, Kimberly Q gives the character just the right blend of sexuality, humor, and fun.
But these are only two of the surrogate mothers. There’s also Miss Corine, a beehive-wearing, self-described “domestic engineer” who runs a side business by having a beauty parlor in her home. Nysheva-Starr captures the absurdity and glory of Miss Corine easily. In a role that could be over the top, she seems natural.
Almost all of the women in the play are maids, and all of them are African American and living in the South—and there is an underlying, never-spoken bond running through all of them that is palpable. My favorite character is Miss Lamama, who is played to comic perfection by Phynjuar. This is a wonderfully written character given a wonderful performance. Erika Myers plays several roles—a little brat of a girl; a fallen woman trying to make good; and the octogenarian Miss Rosa. Myers gives each role such focus and precision that you forget that they are played by the same woman. Donisha Brown is equally flexible, playing three characters herself. Rounding out the cast as the long lost mother of Daughter is Renee Threatte, who dances across the stage like a nimble ghost. There isn’t a weak link in this ensemble.
The direction is tight, bringing in the play in less than two hours. The staging is clever, but not too clever—it never gets in the way of the story, but rather enhances it. The design is simple, more evocative than literal.
One of the remarkable things about this show is that, in being so specific about its characters, it led me to think of all the different teachers and surrogate parents I’ve had in my life who helped me become who I am. I bet you will do some fond reminiscing yourself after you see this fine production.