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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Before It Hits Home Playwright: Cheryl L. West
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2001-01-24

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Who will accompany Everyman to the grave? Or in this case, Wendal Bailey, the promising young jazz musician who has contracted AIDS. Will it be the mother of his child? The closeted boy friend? The doctor who's seen it all before? The pregnant hooker in the clinic waiting room who bids him "welcome to the family"? Or maybe it will be Wendal's childlike mother, secure in her devotion to family and church. Or his authoritative father, always demanding the best from himself and his offspring. Or his loyal brother, his parents' pride. And what about Mama's long-time "best friend," with whom she shares a friendship closer than either has with their respective husbands? And the clueless son, at a loss to understand the upheaval surrounding his father's illness?

Playwrights nowadays often err through trying to say too much in the abbreviated span of a single play, but Cheryl L. West's account of disease, denial and coming to terms with both is as lean and uncluttered as its medieval prototype. And if the narrative leaves a few questions unanswered—how did Wendal and his male lover first discover their mutual attraction? In what ways does African-American culture support the kind of unigender intimacy that Reba and Maybelle enjoy? Does the clan patriarch really favor brother Junior, or is his affection only invoked "when Wendal screws up"?—any confusion arising from what we are not told merely sparks our curiosity about the outside lives of the people brought together by this crisis. In real life, after all, an individual's response is not always what we anticipate, and matters seldom wrapped up as neatly as dramatic literature has led us to expect.

For this second production in Congo Square's inaugural season, Anthony Amiri Edwards directs an ensemble of conscientious actors who forge personalities sufficiently complete to close the gaps in West's sometimes elliptical exposition. Indeed, with more than one character undergoing change in the course of the play's action, each is given the care due its protagonist. Javon Johnson's Wendal is no poster-boy martyr, but an imperfect mortal abruptly forced to make his peace in the throes of solitary terror. Ira Carol McGill's Reba and Taron Patton's Maybelle refute the cliché of blind maternal acceptance, while Aaron Todd Douglas deftly avoids likewise stereotypical mannerisms in his portrayal of Wendal's helpless lover. But ultimately, it is Willie B. Goodson, as Bailey paterfamilias, who makes the play his own in a performance to make you weep even as West's story makes you think.


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