- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

You probably won’t look better after spending some time with the barbers at D.C.’s fictitious Howard’s Barbershop — but you’ll certainly feel uplifted.

In “Cuttin’ Up,” which continues through Jan. 1 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, writer/director Charles Randolph-Wright fondly portrays the barbershop as the go-to place in the black community for news, history and fellowship. A hefty spritz of schmaltz accompanies the talcum powder in this warm and poetic look at a neighborhood institution, but a vibrant cast keeps the play from sinking into sitcom sudsiness.

Based on Craig Marberry’s picture book of the same title (Mr. Marberry also wrote “Crowns,” about black churchwomen and their hats, and its musical adaptation was a huge hit for Arena.), “Cuttin’ Up” is a multigenerational oral history about the wealth of experiences that can be had at the barbershop. A haircut, it seems, is almost incidental.

Howard (Ed Wheeler) is the owner-patriarch of the shop. He’s been cutting hair for 50 years and has the anecdotes and adages to prove it. Sagacious and unruffled, Howard’s natural dignity makes him a role model, not just because of the way he acts but also because of his insistence on passing down the wisdom and the stories. He is the play’s history, and Mr. Wheeler takes on the august role with befitting stature that never becomes stilted.

The middle chair in the shop is presided over by Andre (Peter Jay Fernandez), who is as rootless as Howard is planted. He has worked in shops from San Francisco to the Carolinas, picking up pieces of lore wherever he went. Still, an air of quiet dissatisfaction has settled over Andre — because his soul is unsettled and his roaming has racked up little more than mileage. The one thing that does stick with him is unresolved feelings for his first wife, Karen, (Marva Hicks), who has become such a huge R&B; star that her voice floats out into the after-shave scented air every time somebody turns on the radio. As the show’s conscience, Mr. Fernandez’s Andre exemplifies the restlessness of the baby boomer generation. Yet Mr. Fernandez imbues Andre with sensitivity and gravity — his substance may still be unformed, but it is definitely there.

Rudy (Psalmayene 24) is the young upstart of the trio. Chronically late and juggling multiple women, Rudy just wants to have fun and trade jabs and jibes with his customers. This hip-hop boulevardier has no use — or time — for history and the “old school.” Mr. Psalmayene is joyful and exuberant as Rudy, as well as fearless. (Check out his hooty ‘90s-style fly boy dance routine in the second act.)

Listening to the three barbers swap stories would be enough of a play, but “Cuttin’ Up” is further lifted by a steady stream of clients — passersby and people from the past who include Vernon Winfrey (Oprah’s barber father), the cousin of Emmett Till, and Don King. The audience serves as customers waiting for a haircut, as we eavesdrop on conversations that loop and swirl like a John Coltrane solo. The banter is loose and rhythmic and varying in tone — sometimes comical, heartbreakingly poignant, or a brief history lesson.

Duane Boutte, Carl Cofield, Bill Grimmette, Marc Damon Johnson and Miss Hicks — aided by more wigs than Cher wore on all her farewell tours — portray the various folks populating the shop, and their quicksilver costume changes provide generous visual dazzle. They become everyone from harassed mothers from the projects, to ghetto boys and preachers, aging dandies, upwardly mobile yuppies and hipsters in flowing braids.

Costume designer Emilio Sosa and hair/wigs designer Jon Aitchison have outdone themselves recreating the various ‘dos and fashions from the 1960s on up to the present, and audience members guffawed with recognition at the sight of the Jeri Curl, marcel waves, the “Bobby Brown pre-Whitney” fade, pork-chop sideburns and processed hair in every Afro-Sheened way, shape and form.

In fact, recognition is what makes “Cuttin’ Up” work so beautifully. Shaun L. Motley’s barbershop is an impeccable replica of every establishment on every Martin Luther King Boulevard across the country, right down to the checkerboard-tiled floors, the pinups taped to the mirrors, and the well-thumbed magazines on the rack. The dialogue, with its topical references to Hurricane Katrina, Rosa Parks’ funeral and the war in Iraq, will seem immediate and familiar to anyone who has stopped at the corner shop for a quick trim. The vignette structure of the play does not lend itself to dramatic tension or head-turning insights, so the audience just bounces along with the actors. At times, the show dips into the didactic and preachy, but the cast usually jumps in with a ready quip or spot-on character study and saves the day.

You may think you’ve seen “Cuttin’ Up” already if you are a devotee of the “Barbershop” movies, but Mr. Randolph-Wright does more than present a bunch of Def Comedy Jam comedians in barber chairs. With skill and a clear affection for the material, he shows that getting a haircut goes beyond good grooming. In the black community, your hair is your “hair-itage” — it shows where you came from, who you are and how well you respect yourself.

***

WHAT: “Cuttin’ Up,” written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 1.

TICKETS: $41 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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