Playwright: Shay Youngblood
Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111 or PegasusTheatreChicago.org; $20-$30. Runs through: Dec. 10
There are many powerful performances to treasure in Pegasus Theatre Chicago's strong revival of Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery. First staged by the late Chicago Theatre Company back in 1998, Shay Youngblood's play is chock full of compelling scenes for a company of amazingly talented African-American women.
Director Ilesa Duncan previously staged Shakin'… before, so this Pegasus revival has the assured air of an artistic authority who knows the piece through and through. And Duncan has assembled a marvelous company of multi-talented actor/singers to fully embody Youngblood's vivid characters.
Shakin'… is framed by the anonymously named adult "Daughter" ( Melanie Loren ). Just back from a funeral, Daughter lovingly reflects back to her childhood in the 1960s to honor the strong and caring women of her Southern community who raised her following her mother's death.
The bulk of Shakin'… consists of Daughter soaking in life lessons from these characterful and experienced women. Sometimes Daughter is given a direct lecture by the likes of the Bible-quoting Big Mama ( Felisha "Ekudayo" McNeil ), while other times it's just being a silent and wide-eyed observer following gospel choir members like Aunt Mae ( Stacie Doublin ) and Miss LaMama ( Toni Lynice Fountain ) working out their angry rivalry over claims to the same man.
Stories about humiliating racism are shared first hand ( debrah neal as Miss Corrine, who gets caught up in an unfortunate chewing-tobacco incident ), or they're passed down from generations ago ( Darian Tene as the vengeful domestic Miss Shine, who has deadly method of retribution for her bigoted employers ).
Daughter also learns directly from members of her own community who are shunned, including the "girl gone wrong" Maggie ( Takesha Meshé Kizart ), and the simultaneously covert and overt lesbian Miss Tom ( Sandra Watson ).
Loren's Daughter amusingly and touchingly taps into being a child without coming off as phony or cloying. Loren's Daughter also skillfully masks how her generalized character largely serve as a plot device to tie all these disparate stories together.
Yet on reflection, Youngblood's script could do with a better over-arching structure and focus. The prologue gives the impression that five particular elders are going to be the biggest influence on Daughter, but Shakin'… often steers on tangents away from these women to other characters with more significant scenes. Daughter's takeaway from these moments aren't always articulated, either.
So Shakin'… is best savored moment to moment. Each scene provides meaty material for each performer to shine dramatically, comically and vocally. And that's more than enough to make this Pegasus revival of Shakin… a welcome return.