- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

With “Cuttin’ Up,” writer/producer Charles Randolph-Wright hopes to do for hair what “Crowns” did for hats.

Mr. Randolph-Wright directed “Crowns” for Arena Stage, which proved to be a high-brimmed hit for the theater. The musical tribute to black churchwomen and their devotion to millinery played three return engagements to packed houses. He hopes lightning strikes twice with “Cuttin’ Up,” and just to make sure, he’s assembled a team that includes “Crowns” author Craig Marberry and costume designer Emilio Sosa, who fashioned more hats for the production than Bartholomew Cubbins.

“I think of this as the black ‘Spamalot,’ ” Mr. Randolph-Wright says of “Cuttin’ Up,” which continues at Arena’s Kreeger Theater through Jan. 1. “It is amazing to see how men react to that musical, because usually they are dragged to the theater by the women in their lives. We want men to relate to ‘Cuttin’ Up’ and see it as a show for them.”

“Cuttin’ Up,” a world premiere commission, takes audiences into the talc-scented, all-male domain of the barbershop. Based on Mr. Marberry’s book, “Cuttin’ Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops,” the play reveres that neighborhood institution as one that no Hair Cuttery can touch, a place where men can trade folklore and conspiracy theories, talk about women, find out what’s going on in the world, and exchange put-downs — while they also walk out looking sharp.

“Barbershops are keepers of tradition in black communities, of handing down stories and history in a way that younger generations can accept. With storytelling, the walls don’t go up,” says Mr. Randolph-Wright, who can chart his own life through the barbershops he patronized and the hairstyles he favored, from his formative years as the son of a well-to-do family of funeral directors in North Carolina (an Afro so big it swallowed up his high school graduation cap) to success as a writer and director in New York and Los Angeles (a Caesar cut) as well as Washington, where lately he’s been sporting what he calls “a slight fade on the sides.”

These days, his barber of choice is in New York, “a real character” who is also known as the man who cuts comedian (and D.C. native) Dave Chapelle’s hair. “I have so many stories about Dave I just can’t tell you,” Mr. Randolph-Wright teases.

But barbershops are more than a place to get the scoop and a shave. “For many black people, it is about appearance being so important because it is a way of commanding respect,” he says. “You are always aware of your appearance because you feel constantly on view. You feel like if you don’t look your best you will be judged and mistreated. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Look what happened to Oprah in Paris and on Rodeo Drive.”

Working on “Cuttin’ Up” brought up racial issues for Mr. Randolph-Wright, who spends his non-working time in Brazil, which he considers a second home. “I don’t see myself as a minority there and it is so freeing,” he says. “You build up all this armor over the years and don’t know how heavy it is until you put it down.”

In the case of “Cuttin’ Up,” the barbers and their patrons use humor as their armor, as well as the fresh-cut hair and smoothly shaven faces that show the world they are somebody. Their stories are told through three generations of barbers — Howard (played by Ed Wheeler), the wisdom-spouting patriarch of the group; Andre (Peter Jay Fernandez), middle-aged and rootless; and Rudy (Psalmayene 24), the upstart who is fast with the scissors and the women.

Mr. Randolph-Wright’s adaptation combines and fictionalizes the interviews in Mr. Marberry’s book, but also contains real-life characters, including barbers Vernon Winfrey (Oprah’s dad) and Wheeler Parker, the cousin of Emmett Till. Originally, Mr. Randolph-Wright conceived the show as a musical revue along the lines of “Crowns” (“Molly [Smith, Arena’s artistic director] was thrilled”), but soon realized how artificial it was to have the barbers burst into song — although it worked well enough for Stephen Sondheim and “Sweeney Todd.”

“I soon realized the stories are the big production numbers,” Mr. Randolph-Wright says. “The music playing on the radio is organic to the piece and I tell the love story of Andre and his first wife, Karen, through song, but that makes sense because she is a singer.”

To keep it natural, the playwright also took the actors to local barbershops, Carl’s on P Street and the Expert Barber Shop, where the barbers taught the cast how to cut hair. “It was just like the play —TVs blaring, a guy with dreadlocks walking in, a woman bringing in her kids so they could be around positive role models, a guy with a huge Afro. They couldn’t believe it.”

Hair gets top billing in “Cuttin’ Up.” “It is worth it just to see the wigs, although I don’t want it just to be a parade of hairstyles,” Mr. Randolph-Wright continues. “But the hair is so iconoclastic I couldn’t resist. And preview audiences have gotten such a kick out of the hair — they see their cousins, their neighbors, themselves in the ‘dos.’ ”

Writing and directing “Cuttin’ Up” caps a time of extraordinary success for Mr. Randolph-Wright. He has directed episodes of the new MTV series “South of Nowhere,” about a fabulous-looking family’s travails after they move to L.A. from Ohio, and “The Emmett Till Story” for Showtime. His movie “On the One” recently earned the Grand Jury Prize for Feature Film at the American Black Film Festival, and his next movie will be “Sanctuary,” based on a short story written by Budd Schulberg, whom he met while directing the newly discovered Frank Loesser musical “Senor Discretion Himself” at Arena Stage last spring.

“Senor Discretion” will have a life beyond Arena’s production, he insists.

“It has been an unbelievable year, especially with all the TV and movies that I’ve done,” he says. “But they are all about images. Plays like ‘Cuttin’ Up’ are all about storytelling, the power of words. TV and movies can’t touch that.”

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