Growing up a black teenager in the early 1970s, for many, meant the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, the New Birth, Superfly, and Shaft. For the Haley sisters, high-schooler Desiree and twentysomething Shauna, it also means emerging collective Black Pride and individual self-actualizing and self-preservation. Seattle-based solo actress Amontaine Aurore brilliantly captures these sharp sisters and several other characters in Free Desiree, written by Aurore and directed by Tikka Sears.
It's 1972. Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" blares as the nerdy Desiree, in big Afro hairdo and thick black glasses, marches on with her French horn carrying case. A lover of words, called to the principal's office, she's furious that the powers-that-be call her actions "mendacious" (meaning untruthful) rather than "provocative". Stunned by her bandleader Mr. Blackburn's cold response to the suicide of their only drummer ("The drummer is the heartbeat of the band," she says), she creates a small sign saying, "FREE DESIREE NOW", tapes it to her forehead, and marches around the classroom. One of only two Black students in White High School High, Desiree starts a petition for a student assembly to vent over the suicide.
Her seven-years-older sister Shauna, one of the few professional Black cheerleaders in the country, prepares a speech for the National Convention of Professional Cheerleaders, and wins a Hollywood audition. Envisioning herself the next Pam Grier, the self-promoting Shauna, sporting a big 'fro, big hoop earrings, and a big attitude, is stunned to find herself reading for roles as a runaway slave, a runaway prostitute, and best friend to the lead--"a somebody's nobody". When Shauna demands her umpteenth rewrite, she says, in effect, "Did I hear someone say 'bitch'? I am a diva!" She also declares, "They done kick Shauna out of Hollywood!" Shauna determines to do for herself.
Free Desiree explores not only of the power of precise, positive words, but the pain of hateful words. Desiree recalls, as a six-year-old playing with a white girlfriend, that a white boy ran up and called Desiree "that word", and how an investigating teacher tried to make her repeat the word. The word left "an indelible desecration upon my body"; she berates her parents, "You told me I was smart, and that I had to stay smart...but you didn't tell me something was wrong with me!" Her mother comments, "You want to believe that the world has grown up. Well, it hasn't!" However, Desiree isn't the only one hurt by cruel words, and what goes around comes around.
The play is enhanced by a booty-shaking soundtrack from Wheedle's Groove, a Seattle soul-funk band, playing hits like "Funky Broadway" (which sets Desiree dancing in the cafeteria while she's trying to start a speech) and the Spinners' "I'll Be Around", as well as songs I didn't recognize.
It's fun watching Aurore transform from the intellectual Desiree to the stuffy-nosed Mr. Blackburn to the ultraproud Shauna to the girls' protective mother, and to see how she builds the relationships among the characters within these involving anecdotes. In the play's aftertalk the day I came, Aurore credited her director Tikka Sears for helping her shape the piece.
Free Desiree is a wonderful trip into the mind and experience of a woman deliciously recalling the formative years of herself and of much of the country.