Therapy Theater

Self-help diva Iyanla Vanzant plops the audience on her couch in a traveling road show that gives people with issues somewhere to go and cry and laugh.

October 07, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

During "In the Mean Time," Iyanla Vanzant's traveling New Age, self-help medicine show that came to the Lyric Opera House Monday night, perhaps the most startling moment in an evening of startling moments occurred when a couch arrived on stage.

Already in her second costume change, Vanzant pulled Malika Smith from her $75 orchestra seat and plunked her on the couch beside her for an impromptu therapy session. Before a rapt audience of 2,400, Smith told Vanzant that she had never recovered from her father's hatred and her mother's neglect. The pain kept her from reaching her potential; from, as Vanzant would say, "stepping into her bigness."

As Smith's story unfolded, someone in the $49 seats became inconsolable. She cried loud and long and strangely, adding an eerie flourish to the onstage theater verite. From the couch, Vanzant summoned an aide to tend to the sobbing woman.

Vanzant told Smith that she had to forgive, and think of herself as an angel, as well as an "object" by which a lesson, a lesson her father never learned, was taught. Using a combination of gentle browbeating, motherly concern and sassy bluntness, Vanzant put Smith through a series of affirmations to exorcise her guilt, anger and fear.

At one point, Vanzant, calling upon her preternatural ability to balance gut-bucket humor with pathos, to mug while healing, threw a meaty leg over Smith to keep her from straying. The crowd roared. At another point, she ad-libbed, "This lady got issues, she needs tissues."

It was Oprah. It was church. It was entertainment. But was it the empowerment hour? It wasn't clear whether 20 minutes on the couch with Vanzant did the trick. Nevertheless, as the band strummed in an emotionally appropriate way, Smith returned to her seat smiling radiantly, hugging sisters of all hues; happy, at least, for the time being. And after the show, Vanzant would have homework exercises for her to continue the journey into her "bigness."

How to explain Vanzant and the "In the Meantime Tour," a cross-country extravaganza that kicked off Sunday night in Charlotte and will land in 29 cities? Speaking from her Davidsonville home before the show, Vanzant, herself, professed not to know. "There's no way to describe what it is ... I speak and we infuse that with music and song. It's not a play, not a concert, not a lecture. I don't think there's a name for it yet."

A meshing of message

One thing is certain: the show, themed to the best-selling author's same-name new book and CD, takes merchandising synergy beyond the usual T-shirt and video tie-ins to the stage, where a gospel trio sings songs inspired by the Maryland-based Vanzant's writings and Vanzant, herself, offers lessons that are paired with tracts from the CD and book.

Vanzant's hybridization of the personal growth movement, variety show format and tent revival tradition has bred a curious sub-genre that drew an audience of mostly black professional women, but included a sprinkling of all races, genders and ages. The women arrived mainly in groups, dressed in the sleek pants suits and dresses they wore to work. Here and there sat a male, including former state Sen. Larry Young.

It's hard to imagine someone besides the charismatic Vanzant pulling a similar self-help branding crusade: a "Chicken Soup for the Soul Train" or "The Road Less Traveled Road Show," perhaps? Nah. As someone who has made the most of her shape-changing capabilities, Vanzant is uniquely suited to the task of crossing over boundaries, be they racial, religious or economic.

She is, as a friend wrote, "an eternal soul," who has transformed herself over and over again. Those familiar with her various books know that Vanzant, 46, was once Rhonda Harris, abused, impoverished and occasionally homeless mother of three.

She went on to become an attorney, Yoruba priestess, counselor, inspirational speaker, Hallmark card bard, an Oprah beloved, celebrity. It's an intriguing evolution; by embracing so many identities and possibilities, Vanzant embodies the universal, bringing disparate people together while increasing her commercial base. Containing multitudes is good for business.

Of course, Vanzant doesn't see it that way; she is giving followers the benefit of her hard-knocks education, she says: "It's not enough for any of us to learn lessons. Once you learn, it's your responsibility to life to share that information with everybody. The question is how you do it. Barmaids do it in the bar, teachers in the classroom. I do it in books and everything else that's available."

Dazzlingly sexy in white satin bell-bottoms, a cape made of netting, and lots of spangly jewels, Vanzant first appeared on stage Monday from beneath a tubular curtain that rose dramatically above her.

As the band copied Bob Marley's "Is This Love?" she sashayed where no self-help guru has sashayed before, weaving in and out of the path of two chiseled modern dancers who performed a kind of mating dance.

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