Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Villagers it Takes

November 30, 2011

Charlayne Woodard Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011
Charlayne Woodard is no relation to Alfre Woodard. But ironically the former Ms. Woodard’s solo show, The Night Watcher, which recently opened at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, begins with an unexpected phone call from her more famous namesake. Charlayne Woodard, as she describes herself in this largely autobiographical work, is a “blue collar actor” living and working in Los Angeles. The phone call is a surprise solicitation from Alfre for Charlayne and her husband to adopt a baby that is about to be born in a nearby hospital to a young mother who will be unable to care for it. Charlayne contemplates the offer briefly, but then turns it down after reflecting on the real responsibilities of raising a child. In the following two hours with intermission, Ms. Woodard repeats related scenarios in a number of variations. While she and her husband remain willfully and happily childless themselves, she is repeatedly drawn into numerous relationships with other young people as a godparent, family friend, or “auntie”. She becomes a parent by proxy as one of the key villagers involved in raising these particular children.

The vignettes that make up The Night Watcher, which had a New York run in fall of 2009, revolve around the often traumatic and always emotional stories of these children and Ms. Woodard’s attempts to help guide them in moments of poor behavior or severe crisis. The material can be tough at times, but not graphic. And it is often touching, outright tear-jerking material. I'll defer from saying much more since the stories have the most power when they're fresh. But let it be said that abuse and social ills lurk around most bends in the road.

Ms. Woodard is excellent in this. She shows mastery of the essential skills needed to pull off a solo show. She is engaging and an expert storyteller. She manages multiple characters simultaneously with ease. But the material, as heartbreaking as it is, doesn't always make for great theater. The vignettes take similar courses and by the time the audience arrives at the last one. the resolution of it can be easily predicted. The stories of the children in Ms. Woodard's life often work much better than the larger narrative about her own life choices and psychological make up. Although the material that proceeds the final story of Ms. Woodard's confrontation with an African man on the New York subway attempts to answer questions of her motivation that have been strangely absent earlier in the work, the final explanation comes off as defensive and ironically unnecessary. But there is beautiful storytelling here and spending two hours in Charlayne Woodard's warm, glowing and captivating presence is far from unpleasant.

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