Parents, caregivers, aunties, nannies, grandparents and godparents: people who love children and care for children and know the struggle to raise them. Do I have a show for you!
The Night Watcher, now playing at Studio Theatre, is that rarity for the art world in general, and for the theatre world most especially: a show about the art of parenting and the love that those who parent need if they are to keep doing what they do.
As a parent and educator of many years, I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to see this show and experience the “flow” of Charlayne Woodard’s theatrical magic. And that magic is a miracle to behold.
Written by and performed by Ms. Woodard, this one-woman show illuminates that least explored of dramatic actions: the care and nurturing of the young. And no, Ms. Woodard is not even a parent.
Ms. Woodard has apparently been married to a man named Harris for a good number of years and has placed career and personal freedom over motherhood. During that time she has carried three different miniature dogs in her purse. She calls herself a “blue collar” actress: meaning, she does not make enough money to hire a nanny; thus, she does not have the capacity to pull off an “Brangelina” adoption agency. Now, however, she does make enough to go to a store called Puppies and Babies and buy a $150 designer coat for her dog. I think that means that perhaps she’s graduated to “white collar” or maybe that’s a “chartreuse” or magenta” collar.
All kidding aside, however, it is that diversity of experience that makes The Night Watcher, a series of thematically and occasionally character-linked stories, such a powerful theatrical experience.
The Night Watcher represents Ms. Woodard’s fourth venture into the one-woman show genre, and it definitely reveals a playwright at the top of her craft. Not only is the writing succinct and colorful, but she has also managed to weave an emotionally powerful and funny show into a unified, textured whole, and that whole will truly leave you awestruck.
The text appears to be “creative” autobiography and begins soon after Ms. Woodard has married Harris, a tall white man. She receives a phone call from a famous actress and—I guess things in Hollywood might really happen this way—the actress wants her to adopt a bi-racial child of a young single woman who will soon be in labor. In other words, if Charlayne wants the baby, and it will be hers “right out of the oven.”
She wants nothing more than to be a mother and is already planning the baby’s room when her husband quizzes her on who will take care of the child. That’s when the world of childrearing runs smack dab into the world of career building. In the arts in particular, the two can be irreconcilable, with doing both well nearly (if not) impossible.
After deciding not to adopt, Ms. Woodard then takes us on a journey through a series of linked vignettes—wonderfully embodied—that elaborate upon her need “to parent” the young, even though she herself has decided not to be one.
The vignettes cross a range of divides, ethnically, racially, and economically, with the cast of characters covering the rainbow.
During one episode, Ms. Woodard becomes the godmother to the daughter of a wealthy, and highbrow, friend. When the girl becomes pregnant at the tender age of 14, she comes to Charlayne for advice. Although the advice is not appreciated by the girl’s mother, it does bring the mother and her daughter closer together.
During another story, Charlayne becomes the “Auntie” of a boy whose drunken, estranged father is threatening to burn his grandparents’ house down, and the boy feels he must stay awake all night to guard the house. She spends the night with the terrified child, watching over him and taking on the role of “night watcher.”
No matter where Ms. Woodard takes her audience she does so with the exuberance of a woman on a mission. That exuberance is matched only by her superb craft as she takes on an extended family of characters, giving each a distinctiveness that is an absolute joy to watch. Whether using a change of vocal pitch or an iconic gesture or a signature walk, Ms. Woodard’s family of characters are each identifiable in an instant.
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo, with a production team that includes Luciana Stecconi (Set Designer), Michael Lincoln (Lighting Designer), Brandee Mathies (Costume Designer), Karl Lundeber (Composer), and Erik Trester (Sound and Projection Designer), the show’s scenography is wonderful. Of particular note is the visually stunning set and its array of art boxes, each depicting a particular moment in Charlayne’s life.
Affirming stories are difficult to fathom in the world today. Most of our art either focuses on the dysfunctional or the dangerous, or does not focus on much of anything at all, preferring instead the pretty voice or the sensational. When a show comes along that addresses the everyday and tangible—albeit a Hollywood tangibility and a Hollywood everyday—and does so with authenticity and love, one has to take notice.
The Night Watcher should be seen. You won’t see the art of parenting quite the same way ever again.
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.
The Night Watcher plays at Studio Theatre, at the corner of P and 14th Streets, NW, Washington, DC, through November 17. For tickets click here.