Charlayne Woodard loves attention. At age twelve, she reveled in her classmates interest in her unique cornrows. As a teenager, she idolized Angela Davis and went with the baddest boy in school. And in her forties, she wrote an autobiographical play in which she filled every single role. Fortunately, the masterful result is anything but self-indulgent. Though Neat focuses on Charlayne, an African-American girl growing up in 1960s Albany, she is not the true heart of the story. Instead, her developmentally disabled aunt Beneatha — known by all as Neat — is the soul of Woodard’s play. As a child, Charlayne sees her aunt as nothing more than a taller, braver playmate. But as she grows, she changes, as does her impression of her aunt. These two women, along with a multitude of relatives, friends and teachers, come together to tell an engrossing story of racism, identity and adolescence.
Neat is a tall order for any director, but The Kitchen Theatre’s Sara Lampert Hoover rises magnificently to the challenge. Under her direction, Karen Pittman flourishes, bringing outstanding humanity and humor to each and every role. The play opens with a stark, minimalist stage and, of course, a lone actor. Few set pieces and even fewer props leave little to divert the audience and Pittman’s performance is given further importance. Despite a backdrop of distracting sound effects, Pittman brings fervor and surprising physicality to each and every character.
Her Charlayne is an outgoing adolescent dying to escape her outsider role. She is black in a white school, Northern in a Southern family and what Neat calls a “city girl” in a household of rural relatives. Bursting with the energy of the hopelessly naïve, Pittman’s Charlayne is aching to get out and change the world, only to find that the world is working against her. In one scene, Charlayne is caught in a “race riot,” and finds herself fleeing from a bigoted police force and an equally violent group of Black Panthers. Disillusioned and disturbed, she returns home, only to face her parents’ furious scolding. Here, Pittman shines, a superb example illustration of a young girl just on the verge of maturity.
Yet Pittman’s greatest success does not lie solely in the scenes of heart-wrenching injustice. Rather, she truly distinguishes herself with stunning transitions from moments of solemnity to hilarious portrayals of adolescent frivolity. Whether Charlayne is discovering yet another worldly injustice or arguing with her parents about her Afro, Pittman carries both the gravity and joy of growing up.
As Neat herself, Pittman draws on tropes of the mentally disabled that both comfort and alienate the audience. Her stunted speech, exaggerated motions and childlike laughter are instantly recognizable; we have, after all, seen them in countless comedies. This is at once reassuring and troubling. Here is a woman that we can immediately categorize, and yet her words and actions defy classification. As the play progresses, so do our feelings toward Neat. Uneasiness becomes sympathy, sympathy becomes respect and respect becomes admiration. We are irresistibly drawn to a woman whose one true yearning is flight, a woman who often sees more than her full-functioning relatives, a woman far braver than she knows. While not the protagonist, Neat is certainly the centerpiece of Woodard’s play.
In the remaining roles, Pittman is as affecting as she is amusing. From the opinionated and protective grandmother to the sullen, swaggering Charles Bowman, Neat offers a host of characters to help Charlayne — and Neat — on their paths to maturity.
Ultimately, Neat topples notions of race, adolescence, and disability. As Charlayne charges forward into what she hopes is an era of equality, her grandmother prefers to self-identify as “negro.” While a twelve-year-old Charlayne learns Hebrew from her classmates, her disabled aunt questions her own origins. We may start the play with a set of expectations and assumptions, but Neat promptly overturns them and reassures us that the path to adulthood is never easy