A Theater Review by Mary Crylen
4 out of 4 stars
Longtime hair salon owners, Bell and Birdie, grapple with the decision to remain in their beloved South Side neighborhood or relocate under the pressures of gentrification and crime. With the power of music and poetry A Wonder in My Soul evaluates one neighborhood’s evolution through the eyes of two best friends and their lifelong friendship. Marcus Gardley, playwright, sears into Chicago history and current events in this poetic piece of the south side. Gardley’s long established relationship with director Chay Yew has brought forth numerous works such as The House That Will Not Stand and An Issue of Blood. “It has been said that August Wilson largely wrote for Black Men. Marcus Gardley gives voice and visibility to Black Women,” writes Yew. The three large monologues particularly stand out among the pieces are impactful raw hard truths of a culture and future of the Southside. The delivery Jacqueline Williams (Bell Grand Lake) gives will make you slack jawed and emphatically moved. A force of historical retelling emphasizing the importance of hair in black communities is not just something on top of your head. It’s a physical manifestation of roots. Gardley’s writing feels comfortable and familiar which gives the actors a freedom in their performance breaking the barriers of the fourth wall and piercing you directly in the heart.
That saying “when words fail, music speaks” is the perfect analogy to a production filled with so much multifaceted emotions and diverse content. The harmonies cascade over your soul and wash over the audience, particularly those between Greta Oglesby (Aberdeen “Birdie” Calumet) and Camille Robinson (Norma Beverly/ Young Birdie). Outstanding voices! A powerhouse performance! Technically, this work is something to admire and would not be possible without the most important aspect that hit this ball out of the park – sound. Mikhail Fiksel, sound designer, mixes so well the radio playing with character’s singing. The reverb, echo and mix all flowing seamlessly together, which is a feat that warrants its own praise. Hand in hand, Jaret Landon’s original music for the production also breathes the life and soul into the words and scenes displayed.
Never judge a book by its cover nor the play by its set. A beauty parlor with posters of hair and famous women sporting styles from across the ages litter the skeleton walls. A sense that this particular room has so much history, character, laughs and love it is not contained to just one space and transcends past the walls themselves. Kurtis Boetcher, set designer, with international accreditations creates a safe space filled with so much character that it is not over done in the least. A good example of less is more in such a rich work. Another technical aspect that needs heralding is the projection designer, Liviu Pasare. Pasare has a Chicago-based practice creating visual experiences using media and technology. With a well-balanced home movie feel, the projections are not a totally impossible or separate element to the work. Many productions struggle with incorporating projection elements, but this was a refreshing take and well-executed for the medium.
Every time I go home something changes from the Starbucks to the Giordano’s to the Chipotle dotted amongst the half torn down buildings and empty lots. The chains of basic gentrified suburbia are somehow popping up amongst all the rubble of my childhood. This play encompasses all the changes a neighborhood faces over decades. A play that makes you feel warmth and melancholy at the same time because these truths of change reside deep in all of us regardless your melanin. If you’re from the Southside, this will make you feel like home. If you’re not, take a look at this cultural impasse of a changing world and feel the threads of your own connections to growing pains being sung out.
Victory Gardens Theater and The Black Women’s Expo present the Black Beauty Festival February 25th and 26th. The festival is presented in conjunction with the premiere of A Wonder in My Soul. For tickets to the Black Beauty Festival or A Wonder in My Soul, please contact the box office at 773.871.3000 or online at victorygardens.org
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!