By Sheri Flanders
There is a scene in SHAKIN’ THE MESS OUT OF MISERY at Pegasus Theater that violently teleported me back to my childhood. A young girl known only as Daughter hides behind a kitchen table, eavesdropping on older black women who are holding a praise circle and gossiping in the living room. She is caught, shooed away, yet stealthily returns, unable to resist the lure of Grown Folks Business.
Written 30 years ago, playwright Shay Youngblood’s work is a semi-autobiographical story constructed around vignettes about a motherless young black girl in the 1960s, traversing rites of passage through the guidance of her ‘Big Mamas’ – an assortment of dignified matriarchs; blood relatives and otherwise, who have stepped in to prepare her to adulthood. But to call this simply a collection of vignettes is to do this work an injustice. As one of the characters says to the young impatient daughter “A story isn’t like ingredients you list off a soapbox. You have to take your time.”
SHAKIN’ is a master-class in delicious storytelling, and the audience is kept as riveted as the bright-eyed Daughter, eagerly attentive as each vivid story unfurled before our eyes by a cast of eight impossibly talented black women. To have a cast of eight men on a Chicago stage is so common as to be banal. But to have a cast of eight black women in a scripted work is so unusually stunning that I spent the first third of the play afraid that a man would enter and break the spell. Thankfully, this did not come to pass.
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