FORT WORTH If you had ever wondered what seismic disturbance results when a first-rate script collides with a super-talented actress, just go see Jubilee Theatre’s production of Charlayne Woodard’s Neat — and be prepared to feel the earth tremble.
This ceaselessly entertaining one-woman show is the sequel to Woodard’s Pretty Fire, a powerful piece of theater that Jubilee produced in 2012 with the same astonishing actress, Ebony Marshall-Oliver. The structure of this autobiographical play about the author’s childhood, divided between her native Albany, N.Y., and her grandparents’ home in Savannah, Ga., is beautifully simple. It strings together episodes — a family member being turned away from a white hospital, a trip to buy Popsicles, a first kiss, a really bad hair day — from the author’s youth.
The stories are funny, charming, terrifying, gripping and heartbreaking. The mood and tone change in this play, directed by Jubilee artistic director Tre Garrett, as often as the incredibly numerous characters. But all of it makes sense. There is a life that emerges from these remembrances. And the one thread that runs through them all is Neat — Woodard’s aunt who was brain-damaged by a medication accident as an infant.
Although Neat is developmentally challenged, she has an uncanny ability to instill wisdom in those around her. All the people in her world, and especially Woodard, watch her and learn from her in unexpected ways. Having disabled characters who are more able than those around them is a device that’s been beaten to death on stage and screen, from Of Mice and Men to Forrest Gump. But it does not feel forced or recycled here. Neat does not think that life is a box of chocolates or that Kmart sucks. She owes nothing to any predecessor.
Marshall-Oliver’s performance, played out on an almost bare stage with only a single chair for a prop, is a stunning whirlwind of characterizations. One minute she is the author, then she is Neat, then she is her mother, then she is the neighborhood druggist, and so on, through a small city of people. But she makes every one of them vivid and real. And she is most lovable when she is Neat.
In addition to the fine writing and acting, the production is nicely presented. The sound design by Nikki DeShea Smith is especially well-planned and -executed. And the lighting by David Lanza has nice touches.
And be aware that it is not necessary to have seen Pretty Fire to enjoy Neat. This show, which has a slightly lighter tone than the first part of Woodard’s trilogy, stands alone just fine. (Jubilee will do the third part, Real Life, next season.)
So don’t miss this chance to enjoy Marshall-Oliver’s performance and Woodard’s brilliantly paced script. If you do, you will be missing out on something really Neat.