When the house lights dimmed on Arena Stage’s world-premiere performance of Cuttin’ Up, the audience heard a familiar radio personality telling them how to be an appropriate theatre audience.
The voice told everyone not to eat, crinkle candy wrappers or talk during the performance – common sense to most of the audience who had probably been to many performances in their lifetimes, but it might have been new information to a specific part of the audience. Arena invited local barbers from the District to the performance, some of whom were even identified as an inspiration to the production itself, all of them dressed up with their families and excited to see what might have been one of their first nights out to the theatre.
An original work commissioned by Arena Stage, and written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, brings the intimate, talkative atmosphere of a D.C. barbershop to the stage. Based on the book “Cuttin’ Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops” by Craig Marberry, interviews with barbers from around the nation brought forth a type of storytelling that translates well to the stage. Three barbers from three generations, the aged Howard (Ed Wheeler), the mature Andre (Peter Jay Fernandez) and the rookie Rudy (Psyalmayene 24; yes, you read that correctly), tell stories about what the barbershop means to them.
Told in a series of flashbacks, monologues, asides and conversations, characters from all walks of life step into the Howard’s Barbershop to explain their relationship to their hair and their experience at this social meeting place. The audience broke into laughter as hairstyles, from comically large afros to dreads to tight braids (“Tight braids are a poor man’s facelift!” the barbers decree), paraded across the stage.
The most effective aspect of the play was the moments when characters spoke about daily issues. It was obvious that barbershops are a place to discuss the outside world – anything from their love lives to current events. In an interesting shift, the actors discussed “this [riot] business in France,” the hotel bombings in Jordan and the stadium planned in D.C., bringing the space onstage into a specific, relevant time and place. This type of narrative move, removed from the “timeless quality” many playwrights aspire to in their plays, is a noble attempt to capture the mobile spirit of conversation, but unfortunately breaks the conventions of theatre too much to be effective in a realist play. Thankfully, the playwright made this point about conversation, then moved on to other things before the message was overemphasized. Still, the banter bridged generational differences, and was evidence of the timeless importance of the barbershop to a community.
Still, there was a major flaw in the play: story. Mixed in among the stories and laughs were flashbacks about Andre’s life that attempted to construct a back or sub-story that just seemed.well, weak. A random criminal figure who asks for a loan? A predictable death that everyone in the audience had been waiting for since the first act? A choreographed performance from a former fianc? who is now an R&B superstar? What? This story might have been worked in well, except it is all so briefly introduced and acted out that it lacks any relationship to the piece in its entirety.
Still, the audience enjoyed the production, laughing loudly and remaining tensely quiet during the appropriate scenes. The most interesting performance, however, came from the balcony. Nestled in some of the best seats in the house was a family of a barber, dressed up for the night and not afraid to let everyone know how they felt. “Some things you have to un-learn,” a character onstage said, followed by a chorus of “A-men” and “Mhmm” from the seats.
Cuttin’ Up will be at Arena Stage until Jan. 1. Call (202) 488-3300 for tickets.