Alright Houston, you’re gonna have to permit me some cross-border patriotism here for a minute when it comes to ‘da Kink in My Hair, now onstage at Ensemble Theater. I’ll get it over with quickly…
TORONTO IN DA HOUSE!!!!
See, the thing is, you couldn’t grow up in Toronto and be a theater lover (check and check) and not know of/have great affection for this 2001 Fringe show, turned award-winning major production, turned Canadian Television show. The show and its playwright, Trey Anthony (whose star continues to shine – she's presently writing for OWN Network's new show, Ambitions) are part of the lauded fabric that makes up the diverse theater tapestry of Toronto.
Terrific then that Houston audiences finally get to see what we’ve known for years up north – that ‘da Kink is a beautiful and at times sweetly unpolished and occasionally thematically jerky show about the spirit of women whose challenges range from the most disturbingly dire to the universal cry of "what am I gonna do with this hair?”
Well, universal may be overstating it. While the women Anthony presents us with may feel familiar in one female fashion or another, da’ Kink is gloriously and unapologetically a show about and a celebration of women of color. Women of Caribbean descent that is, now living in Brooklyn (the original Toronto setting has been altered). Women who frequent the bustling and transformative hair salon run by the indomitable, free-spirited, Jamaican born Novelette (An’Tick Von Morphxing).
Now before you go and roll your eyes thinking, "ugh, another salon show, haven’t we seen that before
The “in” if you will is the vaguely magical powers of Novelette, who, by a mere touch of hands on her customer’s hair (yes it’s a bit gimmicky), can see (and show us) their innermost thoughts and visions. “Black women’s secrets and hopes are in da hair”, she tells us in thick Caribbean accent, and who are we to argue when we get such compelling stories out of the monologue vignettes that follow. Seven women in total provide us with dream-like confessions, mostly tragic, some worrisome, a few disturbing and one a riotous good-time exploration.
What makes these stories so compelling is that Anthony doesn’t shy away from discomfort or taboo. Senseless violence that leads to death, late in life sensual awakening, issues of racism in many forms, pressures felt in a white workplace, queerness, sexual abuse... these are stories that don’t necessarily go down so easy, but thanks to Anthony’s writing they’re stories worthy of empathy and attention.
But – here’s the thing – if I were reviewing the original production I saw in Toronto many years ago I could stop here. But in 2011, ‘da Kink underwent a rewrite expansion (by virtue of NYU Tisch School for the Arts) that added several unnecessary and clunky musical numbers (original score by Michael McElroy, Carol Malliard,
But it’s the critic's conceit to say, hey everyone…it was so much better before! Thing is, no one in Houston cares. We have what we have here….end of discussion. And thankfully due to an incredibly talented cast, and in spite of some overly cliché lighting and sound effects (Why must the lights go red when someone is shot? Why must recollections be projected in a whoo-hoo echo chamber?), this show is still an incredibly moving and entertaining experience.
The women who bare their souls, Regina Hearne (Patsy – a religious women grappling with the loss of her son), Crystal Rae (Nia) who struggles with the deficits of her dark skin,
The one white woman in the show, Suzy (Anne Wild), a woman struggling with her own familial and personal racism is also a stand out despite her character feeling wedged into the narrative and utterly false in the environs of the salon.
Unfortunately, the character that's supposed to affect us the most, the pre-teen Stacey-Anne (played the night I attended by Jayla McDonald), delivered such a rushed performance as to neuter most of the tension and timing from what should have been a horrific scenario. It’s an extremely difficult scene to perform and it was the job of director Eileen J. Morris to spend more time with the young actress to help her find her footing.
I could write paragraphs about the musical/dance numbers that should have been cut, including the opening to the second act which had everyone head-scratchingly in their jammies singing snippets of Aretha Franklin songs – may she rest in peace. But more important is the fact that this show gives us voices and viewpoints on the stage that I’ve rarely seen in Houston.
All you need to do is listen to the audience, who at times didn’t quite know how to react to some of the shocking scenarios at first, but were eagerly processing what they saw. You could feel the empathy and engagement work in action and really, as a lover of theater, a proud Torontonian and a supporter of Trey Anthony, what more could I ask for?
Apparently, I could ask for something I didn't even know I was going to get. To honor the spirit of Anthony’s female-centric show and to acknowledge the #timesup world we live in, Ensemble stepped up. This production not only has an all-female cast )
So regardless if this isn’t the exact ‘da Kink I would have liked Houston to experience, I’m thrilled that this funny and fiercely ballsy depiction of women of color struggling with problematic issues, backed by a strong female production, is
Come for the hair, stay for the heart. And let Trey Anthony and Toronto show you one of Canada's beloved theatrical gems.
‘da Kink In My Hair continues 20 through October 14 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St. For tickets call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $35 to $44.