A Handsome Woman Retreats
nytheatre.com review by Lucile Scott
June 18, 2008
Kim Wayans, little sister of the Wayans Brothers, who appeared on In Living Color with her more famous siblings, chronicles her life growing up a poor Jehovah's Witness in the projects, her eventual career in show biz, and her search for God or spirituality in her one-woman show A Handsome Woman Retreats, with a graceful balance of hilarity, pain, and poignancy.
The show opens with Wayans heading off to a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the urging of her yoga teacher to combat the frequent panic attacks she has been experiencing. She complains, attempts to flee, curses her yoga teacher, and stockpiles contraband snacks, but slowly submits to sitting stationary and meditating for 10 hours a day, providing the clever structure for the play.
The idea of the retreat is to cleanse yourself of the emotional residue of the past by meditating through it, allowing you to achieve some sort of transcendence. But to meditate through it, you have to process it, so Wayans hops up from her Lotus pose—moments she narrates in voiceovers as it is a silent retreat—to act out what is going on inside her head, which just so happens to be her life story.
The transitions from memories to yoga have been fluidly directed by Iona Morris and are effective and natural. Wayans's memories center on womanhood—both as a youth when a relative gave her a clothes pen to shrink her nose, telling her she is what they call "handsome," and as an adult black female looking for decent roles in Hollywood—and on her relationship with God—the angry, mean, vengeful God of her childhood whom she tried to trick into thinking she was saved by writing an "S" on her forehead with eyeliner, as well as her current cross-legged foray into peace and enlightenment.
At times almost spastically high energy and neurotic, Wayans is hilarious and captivating, but also willing to let many of the more dramatic moments stand without diluting them with humor, increasing her seeming vulnerability and the emotional impact of the show. She breezes through her In Living Color days to focus instead on the less satisfying aftermath. She manages to be outraged about the roles available to her (sassy judge, sassy astronaut, sassy deaf mute, no-life black best friend of the beautiful white woman) without seeming at all self-righteous, treading through these politicized issues with an honest self-awareness that proves insightful and moving. She is alternately wacky, coy, whimsical, zany, and romantic, all adjectives she spouts off as completely lacking in any role that has ever come her way—well before now that is.