Therefore, I expected “Pretty Fire,” a new work from Sankofa African American Theatre Company, to take me on a traumatic, drama-filled journey to the Jim Crow South. And it did, for a scene or two. But I certainly didn’t expect the belly laughs and cozy memories that rippled throughout the rest of the story.
Told in the form of a memoir spanning from birth to pre-teen, playwright Charlayne Woodard (Sharia Benn) tells her life story through the African oral storytelling tradition called griot. The play is mostly a one-woman show, with the characters in Charlayne’s life story playing on the upper stage, symbolic of the way memories inhabit the corners of our minds (played by Megan Ruoro, Johntrae Williams and Meredith Greene).
We first meet Charlayne in her living room, playing an old blues record on her phonograph, digging through her hope chest and holding her family pictures close to her heart. Thus unfolds the set of stories, which begin with her family coming together around her seriously premature birth in Albany, N.Y., going to a mostly white school, and being called the n-word for the first time. (Spoiler alert: Mama helps take the sting out of that word, to take its power away.)
Then we go along with Charlayne and her sister Allie (Ruoro), who catapult us into the Deep South in the time of Jim Crow to summer with their grandparents. The memories are mostly cozy: singing “Dixie” among the pecan trees and peach trees, squishing red clay mud between her toes in the rain, and getting baths with her sister in grandma’s washtub. The bell ringing when opening the door of the corner store made my own memories rush back. I was suddenly 8 years old again, clutching a dollar bill, and trekking down the road to buy a few needful things.
Woodard’s vignette about singing in the church choir should be a play all by itself, perhaps a musical. This story perfectly encapsulates the experience of all-day church, complete with a matron wearing an enormous hat who glares and clears her throat to silence the children.
Benn delivers a gripping and authentic performance. I won’t soon forget her interpretations of both grandmothers, with their funniest flaws and all their love so obviously pouring forth. Although it would be easy to meld both together, Benn voices each with a distinct personality. Along the way, we learn lessons: front porch wisdom and how to guilt the grandma way.
The writing is full of poignant imagery that jolts you to a place in time, even if you’ve never been there or lived through it. Director Lyeneal Griffin describes the play as vivid and visceral, full of “personal memories that will feel like home for so many of us.”
“Pretty Fire” runs July 30 through Aug. 8, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The play is presented through a partnership between Sankofa African American Theatre Company and Gamut Theatre, where the play will be performed in adherence with all COVID-19 protocols. Order tickets through the website at www.sankofatheatrehbg.com.
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