When audiences last saw Thomas W. Jones II's bombastic Walt Young in 2009, the reluctant retiree was cracking jokes and butting heads with his family in Horizon Theatre's world premiere of A Cool Drink a Water. Written by Jones, the comedy/drama alternated between laughs and pathos as Walt fought with his sister over their late mother's estate, but Jones' unrestrained performance tipped the scales to the comedic side.
Jones revisits Walt and his family with Horizon's world premiere of Sheddin', a sequel to A Cool Drink a Water. This time he gives Walt plenty of room to strut, gripe, sing, and sermonize with a purely humorous story. Most summers Horizon Theatre collaborates with Jones, either as a writer, composer, director, or actor, to coincide with the National Black Arts Festival. Sheddin's thematic ambitions aim lower than many of Jones' previous shows at Horizon, but the play proves to be one of his most entertaining.
Sheddin' begins with Walt and his friends Moses (E. Roger Mitchell) and Otis (LaParee Young) performing a musical number that switches from wave-your-hands-in-the-air funk to seductive old-school R&B. For weeks the middle-aged trio has been rehearsing next to Walt's backyard shed, although they seem less motivated to sing than to cheerfully bicker over such trivia as whether a particular dance move is "The Honey Dripper" or "The Sticky Leg."
Walt has convinced his friends that they can perform as the opening act for his son Trane (Enoch King), a rising rap star returning for a hometown concert following a year abroad. He hasn't been entirely truthful with his friends or his mother, Ruthie (Donna Biscoe, reprising her role from A Cool Drink a Water), however. Upon returning, Trane reveals that he already has an opening act — and a fiancée — in E'Boa (Francesca McKenzie), a blonde, Korean singer/dominatrix. "She looks like Lady Gaga and Erykah Badu had a baby!" Walt exclaims. The first act ends with Trane and E'Boa performing a duet of his hip-hop and her kinky dance-pop.
Costumed by Nyrobi Moss, E'Boa sticks out like a space alien in the middle-class backyard and brings some intriguing thematic nuggets for Act Two. Trane and E'Boa argue whether her use of a whip makes an unwelcome evocation of slavery or serves as a means for an abused woman to reclaim her sexuality. Sheddin' doesn't fully explore the intimations for 21st-century art and sexual dynamics. At times E'Boa seems like a caricature of a contemporary pop diva, but McKenzie gives the character a vivid stage presence.
Walt's showbiz pipe dream is so divorced from reality that it undermines the audience's respect for the character: He seems sharp enough in other ways that it's hard to believe he'd be such a fool. Jones and Biscoe give persuasive performances as two long-married spouses negotiating their respective aspirations, but their quiet moments inhibit the play's momentum.
The heart of Sheddin' lies in the interplay between Walt, Moses, and Otis shooting the breeze and ragging on each other. The play relies on a laid-back form of conversational comedy reminiscent of Do the Right Thing's scenes of comedian Robin Harris hanging with his buddies on a street corner. At one point Otis echoes Richard Pryor's "Mudbone" routine when he spins a yarn about how he incurred a voodoo hex in Louisiana. The play attends to traditions of verbal comedy as much as the different genres of pop music.
Puns and malapropisms pepper Otis' lines, while bookish Moses coins phrase such as "Ninja, please!" to avoid using salty language. Occasionally the script's jokes fall flat, but Jones, Mitchell, and Young have such ease and chemistry with each other, it's fun just to hang out with them. In musical terms, the lyrics of Sheddin' prove a little shaky, but the melodies are engaging enough to turn the play into a high-spirited backyard jam session of joshing around.
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