`Cuttin' Up' history scenes are cut above

Theater Review


"There are so many stories here," says Howard, owner of the Washington barbershop where Cuttin' Up takes place.

Adapted and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright from Craig Marberry's book (subtitled Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops), Cuttin' Up is something of a sequel to Crowns, adapted from Marberry's book about the relationship between black women and their hats.

Crowns was a best-selling book as well as a best-selling show at theaters around the country, and Cuttin' Up should also have a promising future. In the play's world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage, however, some elements feel forced and others are too predictable.

Randolph-Wright focuses his script on three generations of barbers working in the same shop. Ed Wheeler's Howard is a philosopher sage; Peter Jay Fernandez's Andre is middle-aged and chronically unable to put down roots; and Psalmayene 24's (yes, that's his name) Rudy is a hip-hop youth.

The most illuminating parts of the play, however, concern the barbers' customers -- and the relationship between them and the barbers. The customers, as well as various other barbers who turn up, are played by four versatile actors (Duane Boutte, Carl Cofield, Bill Grimmette and Marc Damon Johnson), with Marva Hicks portraying all of the female characters, from a female barber to Andre's ex-wife, a recording star.

The scenes featuring this character, however, are among the problems with the script. Her troubled relationship with Andre seems largely extraneous to the overall "wit and wisdom" theme, and her singing interludes, while lovely, are basically an excuse to incorporate live music.

In contrast, a more integral scene occurs when two rival preachers (Grimmette and Johnson) show up for haircuts at the same time. After indulging in teeth-gritting pleasantries, they break into a bout of sermonizing one-upmanship that ends in rousing, and unexpected, harmony. "Since way back, black people have gathered in two locations to share news: the church and the barbershop," says one of the preachers.

In keeping with this notion, the show includes snippets of history and references to current events (updated on a regular basis). A mother who brings her father and her children to the shop says, "Here's living history," and the show amply demonstrates this contention.

A sample history lesson is that many of the haircuts still worn today were invented by slaveholders who used them as "a form of branding," Howard tells Andre. And there are references to such historic figures as Emmett Till (the tragic story of the Chicago teen who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 is related by a cousin who grew up to be a barber) and recently deceased civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. A particularly moving vignette features soldiers serving in wars from World War II through Iraq, who come in for handsome trims before the Armed Forces barbers get to them. The scene offers a poignant shorthand look at different attitudes toward different wars.

In addition to the principals, Grimmette is especially notable in roles ranging from fight promoter Don King to Oprah Winfrey's father, Vernon, a barber in Nashville. And designer Shaun L. Motley has created a pleasingly realistic set, from its linoleum tile floor to the razor strops hanging on the sides of the barber chairs.

"This is no ordinary barbershop," a customer says near the end of Cuttin' Up. Randolph-Wright's script is at its best when it departs from ordinary playmaking and shows us what makes black barbershops such extraordinary places. In those moments, you feel as if you've not only gotten a stylish, new haircut, but a new outlook on life as well.


If you go Cuttin' Up continues at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington, through Jan. 1. Tickets are $41-$60. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.

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