- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Actress-playwright Charlayne Woodard is no stranger to dramatic entrances. Her first occurred at birth, when she arrived prematurely in the middle of a snowstorm, weighing a little more than 1 pound and able to fit in the palm of her mother’s hand.

Miss Woodard was not expected to live through the night, and doctors predicted that if she did, she would have mental and physical disabilities of every ilk. Obviously, she survived, and in fine fettle, with a flair for the charged moment and an ability to glean life lessons out of childhood experiences.

“Pretty Fire,” Miss Woodard’s one-woman play, centers on five stories from her youth and how they shaped and changed her. The African Continuum Theatre Company’s production, sensitively directed by Scot Reese, stars an ebullient Erika Rose as Miss Woodard and the various family members and personalities who wafted in and out of her early life.

Miss Woodard came from a close-knit family in upstate New York, but she also spent summers with her grandparents in Georgia, which she bucolically describes as “Dixie,” imagining it as a Shirley Temple movie come to life. This gave her the unique perspective of both the Jim Crow South (the play’s title comes from a child’s naive reaction to a burning cross while visiting her grandparents one summer) and the more accepting North of the 1960s and ‘70s.

However, racism is everywhere, as Charlayne learns when a schoolmate in Albany blithely calls her the N-word during a footrace. Even this harsh experience holds a lesson, as Miss Woodard’s mother reduces the racial epithet to nothing more than a silly little word, depriving it of its sting and power.

“Pretty Fire” begins with Miss Woodard’s stormy birth and moves onto her father’s extreme methods for teaching the ABCs. The stories are filled with warmth, acceptance and love, with each tale growing more complex as Miss Woodard ages.

The centerpiece of the show is the story “Pretty Fire,” in which Miss Woodard and her younger sister, Ally, realize that life in Dixie is not all slapping around barefoot with red-clay mud squishing between your toes and grandparents spoiling you silly. Miss Woodard, for the first time, sees that her indomitable grandmother is not fearless when it comes to the Klan.

The show’s most harrowing sequence is “Bonesy,” in which Miss Woodard and her sister are terrorized by the neighborhood bully. A near rape on a rainy Saturday morning ruins beloved everyday objects and occurrences for the 11-year-old girl. Shiny yellow rain slickers, splashing in rain puddles and running to the corner store all hold curdled memories and menace for Miss Woodard after her violent encounter.

The play ends on an inspirational note with “Joy,” a meandering, musical story about Miss Woodard and her family’s desire to please their grandmother at all costs. When Grandma expresses her “dying wish” that her grandchildren sing in the church’s junior choir, Miss Woodard and her kin are front and center, belting out “Jacob’s Ladder” with the best of them. Then grandma adds a coda to her wish — that one of the children sing a church solo.

Miss Woodard — who has a recurring role on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and a Tony nomination for her work in the hit Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — swallows her fears and panic to please her grandmother and discovers her true calling, to be an actress.

“Pretty Fire” displays Miss Woodard’s keen sense of detail, imbuing the stories with sights, sounds, smells, music and laughter. Miss Rose is engaging and animated as the main character, slipping into the childlike cadences of a young girl before morphing into a basso-voiced adult and the smooth, water-over-stone voices of her relatives from the South.

Miss Woodard’s growing up was not without its bumps and jolts, but what comes through in “Pretty Fire” is how her family’s love sustained and strengthened her, giving her the wherewithal to let life’s ordeals teach her instead of stop her.

***

WHAT: “Pretty Fire” by Charlayne Woodard

WHERE: African Continuum Theatre Company at Atlas Center for the Arts, 1333 H St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 29.

TICKETS: $20 to $30

PHONE: 800/494-5764

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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