The setup: The chrome on the three barber chairs gleams brightly in Janelle Flanagan's "kitchen sink" set for Charles Randolph-Wright's rich, if sketchy, tapestry of black life as witnessed in a contemporary Houston barbershop. Clippers buzz, scissors click and men talk on the Ensemble Theatre stage as an entire panorama of everyday and extraordinary characters sit in the chairs and spin their tales. It's history seen through hair. The execution: Old man proprietor Howard (the always exceptionally vivid Wayne DeHart) calls his place the "final black frontier...our sanctuary," and it is that and more as every type of character comes in and has a say. Howard's employees are as much of a cross-section as is the multitude of clients. Rootless Andre (the solid Henry Edwards Jr.), shell-shocked from childhood trauma, has had three wives and feels the urge to keep moving on, while young Rudy (the constantly moving audience favorite Joseph Palmore), though a slacker and always out for a good time, learns about life through osmosis from his older, wiser brothers.
These three are surrounded, sometimes swallowed up, by the constant stream of clients and drop-ins who appear in memory flashbacks, such as a butch lesbian who knows exactly how she wants her hair cut, a flamboyant reverend whose car plays Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" when he unlocks the door, a homeless jive master who displays his stolen CDs in the lining of his shabby trench coat, and Howard's uptight lawyer son.
Even electric-haired boxing promoter Don King, Oprah Winfrey's kindly barber father and Emmett Till's scarred cousin, who frighteningly recalls his relative's egregious murder, make an appearance. All of these many, many characters are lovingly limned by Jason Carmichael, Troy Hogan, Broderick Jones, Robert Marshall and Detria Ward.
They may be rendered as cartoons and stereotypes, and all too often they're used as one-line life lessons, but they've all been given lush detailing by this talented quintet. They come and go so quickly, we often lose focus on the main guys, but their appearances work as a quick, loving glimpse of black experience.
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Director Eileen Morris keeps everything in perspective, never losing sight of the three guys whose stories everyone else illuminates. DeHart, as Howard, is flinty and feisty, giving out fatherly advice to the youngsters when he deems it necessary; Edwards, as Andre, plays it close and cool, when not pushed to reveal too much; and Palmore, as Rudy, is a wily scene stealer with smooth dance moves and a different daily pinup. He's like a living mosh pit, jazzed up and ornery.
Lively and full of warm humor, the play stalls once or twice, but the comic situations and gentle characters always draw us in. If nothing else, the provocative costumes by Shirley Marks Whitmore are a veritable time machine of blue boas, gold platform shoes and sharkskin zoot suits.
The verdict: Adapted from Craig Marberry's nonfiction book of interviews, Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops, Randolph-Wright's play adds a base storyline to the disparate tales on display. The lessons learned by all the guys may not be the freshest ever put onstage, but when depicted with such generosity by all eight superlative actors, the play's heart, humor and hopeful messages are universal. And gratefully applauded.
Get your hair cut and styled with panache, and take a trip through contemporary black history, through April 15 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. Purchase tickets online at www.ensemblehouston.com or call 713-520-0055. $15-$35.