The division of labor among the cast of Cheryl L. West’s Birdie Blue is its salient feature in performance: Everybody onstage gets just enough to do, and gets to do precisely what they do best. Charles Weldon gets to be alternately forceful and pathetic in a set of small but significant scenes. Billy Porter displays flamboyance and authority in a string of cameo roles that include an elderly woman and a distraught child. And S. Epatha Merkerson, commanding center stage, is asked to carry the bulk of the evening, and does so triumphantly. For the increasing number of Americans unaware of the difference between reality and television, I should explain that Merkerson is one of the many prominent stage actors kidnapped and temporarily held hostage by the latter medium, which is incapable of generating any distinctive artists of its own. Merkerson’s too-frequent absence from the stage has been particularly egregious because her abilities extend to emotional heavy lifting of a kind the theater deeply needs to get its great work done. Merkerson is an actress you can depend on to carry a big, demanding central role in a serious play, and we have not yet seen an eighth of what she can do in that line.
Birdie Blue, which gives a fairly wide sampling of Merkerson’s possibilities, is only a beginning. Time-jumping and constantly shifting in tone, West’s engrossing play has lulls and repetitions in it, during which I amused myself by listing all the other roles, from Clytemnestra to Mother Courage, that I should like to see Merkerson play. I came out with a list of about 30, roughly a dozen of them by African American writers. (Surely it’s high time, for instance, that someone revived Ed Bullins’s The Fabulous Miss Marie.) In Birdie Blue, Merkerson plays the title role, a hard-working Chicago woman, late in life, trapped in her conflicting memories. We get to see her tormented by love with the wrong man, enchanted when the right one turns up, distraught when she can’t give the latter a child, and driven nearly to the edge of madness when he succumbs to Alzheimer’s. (Because he has given her a home, she refuses to put him out of it by shipping him off to a nursing facility.) We see her coping with her troubled son by her first lover, sometimes making choices that she will come to regret, and in later life, doling out understanding to the maltreated children of others. We see her as a naive adolescent, just arrived on Chicago’s South Side from the Mississippi cotton fields, and as a grown woman struggling to make sense of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. The memories crowd in, dense and shadowy, tumbling over one another. Unlike the tidy, one-notion-at-a-time sequencing of recollection that some memory plays employ, this one is a scumbled portrait, a gumbo of memories jostling each other, with great density and richness of detail but maddeningly little forward motion.
Frustrating as that condition may be, the quality of West’s writing keeps it from weighing the play down. In the bumper crop of young black women playwrights we’re currently experiencing, she has one of the most intriguing sensibilities around, offering a sharp eye for detail, a wide-ranging compassion for human eccentricity, and a sense, rare in contemporary playwriting, of moral curiosity. She is interested in the many ways in which good people make bad and even self-destructive decisions. Up against it in a harsh urban world, Birdie is a character who lives for betterment: her own, her family’s, and her neighborhood’s. Yet, far from being a Pollyanna, she is a fallible (and lovable, and understandable) woman who hinders as often as she ameliorates.
In old-radical parlance, Birdie is a part of the problem who is struggling actively to make herself part of the solution; her race, her limited education, and her economic position mean that the outside world is rarely inclined to offer her any help in fighting her way through. The situations of her life crumble away as she tries to resolve them, and any wrong choice she makes, however slight, only causes them to crumble faster—a vision that justifies the play’s weird, muddy fluidity. Among the troubling scenes is one in which, in the uproar following Dr. King’s assassination, Birdie vindictively throws out her son, who has turned up, after a long absence, with a white girl in tow (of whom he says, “She’s good people”); in another she comforts and shelters her now senile husband after he has apparently been accused of molesting a neighborhood child. As in her earlier plays, West declines to make deep questions easily digestible for us; she has passionate sympathies but no glib answers.
Seret Scott’s production struggles, often imaginatively, to find a style for West’s shifting mass of disparate elements. She’s held back, at times, by Anna Louizos’s bulky, blocklike set, which seems to strive to assert realistic spaces in the face of a text that demands something much more dreamlike. A far bigger help is Donald Holder’s lighting: Thick-colored and clumpy, it appears to ooze from one scene into the next, often evoking the dark palette and heavy impasto of some African American painters. But Scott’s greatest asset is the actress at the evening’s center: Doughty and elegant, always intense but never bearing down too heavily on the emotions, Merkerson gives one of those performances that make you want to know more and more about the character, with every fresh discovery increasing your desire to see the performer with greater frequency, and in greater roles.