Monday, February 16, 2004

'Neat' one-woman knockout

By Joseph McDonough
Enquirer contributor

Last season the Know Theatre Tribe presented Charlayne Woodard's Pretty Fire, featuring popular local actor Burgess Byrd.

Know returns this year with Neat, the second of Woodard's touching trilogy of autobiographical one-woman plays, again showcasing the always-energetic Byrd.

While Byrd gave a fine performance in Pretty Fire, this time around she has matured with a more nuanced and varied delivery and is in complete command of the stage.

With beautifully paced and focused direction from Mary Tensing, Byrd holds court with her audience as she enacts often hilarious and heartfelt stories from Woodard's childhood.

Neat is the nickname of Woodard's Aunt Beanetha, a simple but loving girl who suffered brain damage as an infant when a white hospital in the segregated South wouldn't treat a sick black baby.

Neat becomes an emotional touchstone for Charlayne as they both grow up in the '50s and '60s.

As a young girl, Charlayne enjoys her idyllic summer visits to her grandmother's Georgia farm. But when Neat comes to live with Charlayne's family in Albany, N.Y., Neat's mental condition and rural ways become an embarrassment to the adolescent Charlayne.

In high school as Charlayne encounters budding sexuality and the black power movement, Neat becomes an unknowing source of stability as the complexities of adult life emerge for both of them.

Woodyard's strong gift for storytelling is more humorously displayed in Neat than in Pretty Fire, though both pieces share a poignant emphasis on the importance of family and the loving generational bonds that are formed between African-American women.

Byrd's big adaptive voice and fluid stage presence bring to life the various characters from Woodard's past. While Byrd's comic timing is impressive, most effective is the arresting, slower dignity she gives to Neat.

Saturday's packed preview audience gave Byrd a standing ovation.

Neat is that small-stage knockout that Cincinnati's emerging theater scene too rarely finds.


Neat, through Feb. 28, Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, (513) 300-5669.

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