Sometimes, certain theatrical venues can be victims of their own past productions, having set the bar so high that it seems impossible to reach that standard again, let alone surpass it. But some venues not only match the bar time and again, but they also kick the damn bar all out the way and declare themselves again and again as the ultimate barometer of excellence. Welcome to Baltimore Center Stage’s production of “A Wonder in my Soul.”
Playwright Marcus Gardley has constructed a drama with searing wit and exquisite insight and took the extraordinary step of immersing himself in Baltimore for a period of time to rewrite his play and set it in our very own Charm City. Set in a Baltimore hair salon, Gardley went so far as hold a summit of local hairdressers and salon owners to get a true feel for the environment and get just the right mix of local lore for his story of the two life-long friends and the handful of others who create the world of “A Wonder in my Soul.” Mr. Gardley takes his place alongside August Wilson, Lorrain Hansberry and other black writers who capture the voices and times of a particular segment of society.
…from the opening lines to the closing bows, you get an evening of theatre that is one for the record books.
Attentively directed with a sure hand and steady gaze by Center Stage’s own Daniel Bryant, the production hums with an engaging energy that never lets up even in the quieter, more contemplative moments (of which there are not many.) Bryant knows his material and his actors and has assembled a team who expertly give presence to both his and the writer’s vision. Jaret Landon’s musical direction overlays the action and adds so much to it that it could easily have been billed as a musical. The music weaves a tapestry that adds to and enhances the storyline.
The set by Wilson Chin has a backdrop comprised of floating portraits of black stars from all walks of life, from Shirley Chisolm and Diana Ross, Rosa Parks and Mahalia Jackson, Harriet Tubman and Oprah. The rest of the set is an amiable mix of hair dryers, sinks, the typical accouterments found in a salon, a comfortable jumble in a space where it is easy to imagine these ladies spending an afternoon in gossip and comradery. With lights by Kathy A. Perkins and costumes by David Burdick, the totality of the presentation is as professional as anything on Broadway. And with projections by Alex Basco Koch highlighting Baltimore locales on either side of the stage adding theatrical punctuation, the technical aspects shine.
The entire cast is comprised of professionals of such high caliber that I could go on for pages about each of them. Stanley Andrew Jackson III plays Andrew Hill, son of one of the two ladies who own the salon. Jackson is a firebrand who infuses the part with equal parts earnest activist and repentant offspring He does a fine job and is thoroughly watchable. Anastasia McCleskey plays two characters and does an outstanding job with both. And lord have mercy can that girl sang! Also doing double duty is Kalilah Black, no slouch in the vocal department either. Ms. Black has an innocence about her that is poignant and reveals a truly talented actor. Alexis J. Roston as First Lady Cedonia Mosher is brilliant as the neighborhood bougie church lady. Rich, republican and black, an unusual mix considering the milieu she moves in, the character is brought to vibrant life in Ms. Roston’s more than capable hands.
The two leads are played by Harriett D. Foy and Wandachristine. I don’t even know where to start with these two. I mean, I can’t even. Words are just not enough to, there are not enough words to – let’s try this again…
Wandachristine is an actress that commands the stage with what appears to be a fragile tentativeness beneath a tough exterior – an almostPollyanna-ish belief in the goodness of others, especially her son. As the action progresses, we come to know the character is as ‘tough as a lion protecting her cubs.’ In flashbacks, we learn of her dependency on her best friend, her husband until he leaves her, her son and even in a twisted way, her largely estranged daughter. But when her back is against the wall or her family is threatened, she is fierce. Wandachristine embodies the strong and tender, the tough and the sweet with an astonishing panache.
Harriett D. Foy is a whirling, twirling tornado of an actress. From her unruly mane of fabulous hair to her stylishly practical boots, she struts and thrusts her way sensuously around and through the action with a laser-focused presentation that never waivers for an instant. I would posit that almost every black person in the country knows someone like Swann Park Sinclair, Ms. Foy’s character. Feisty and sexy in her 60s, an earth mother with a loud, unapologetic, take no prisoners, brook no nonsense and suffer no fools attitude, Harriett D. Foy is a Wonder in Any Soul.
When you put together two major forces of nature, powerhouse actors both, a supporting cast that is every bit up to the challenge of holding their own with the two leads, add in a script with incredible dialogue and mesmerizing monologues, a plotline that holds the audience’s attention from the opening lines to the closing bows, you get an evening of theatre that is one for the record books. You get “A Wonder in my Soul.”
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
“A Wonder in my Soul” plays through December 23rd, 2018 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calver Street, Baltimore. For tickets, call