After playing Will Smith’s aunt on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it seems Charlayne Woodard just can’t keep her caretaking instincts at bay. Woodard’s new solo play, The Night Watcher, chronicles her real-life friendships with a coterie of godchildren and young protégés from coast to coast, in a series of anecdotes ranging from the wryly amusing to the clichéd.
After deciding to forgo motherhood herself—too much commitment—Woodard makes promise after promise to friends’ children, becoming their most trusted adult and, often, their first emergency phone call. Flitting around the bare stage, she impersonates an array of characters to recount tales of her wards’ milestones, crises, and comings-of-age. One annoys her “auntie” by demanding pricey sunglasses; another, 14 and pregnant, begs for aid. Tal Yarden’s projections create lovely, impressionistic backdrops: dreamy suburban streets, window gratings on Brooklyn brownstones.
Despite Woodard’s nimble energy, her imitations of the children are flat: Though many are troubled teens, she renders them all as lisping, whiny pre-schoolers. And in the end, she can’t decide whether to aim for stand-up comedy or heartwarming self-help story; the show’s last moments detail a sappy personal breakthrough. A final photomontage collages the tykes’ real faces, glowing and joyful—reassuring Woodard (and us) that her unconventional stewardships have not been in vain.