How does this sound: Whitney Houston stars in Precious: a one-woman musical based on the TV show Intervention, with music by Diane Warren, from executive producer Tyler Perry! Jeannette Bayardelle’s solo musical Shida might not fit that bill exactly, but the highs and lows implied by that fictitious marquee are all in full force during her entire 70-minute song buffet. The robust, indulgent Bayardelle once played Celie in the Broadway musical of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; like Whitney, she holds her own in an impressive range of pop styles and delivers them with a throaty belt that could blow your hat off.
Her jam-packed coming-of-age tale, told primarily through cheeseball songs, the rock tunes better than the ballads, concerns Shida, a gifted black girl who aspires to be a writer. She can spell “colloquial,” but her promise dwindles after her mother’s boyfriend repeatedly rapes her, à la Precious. She develops a reputation for sleeping around, gets a scholarship to NYU, her mother dies of cancer, she becomes a drug addict. Etc., etc. Bayardelle throws melodrama at the audience as if she herself might die at the end.
Shida’s role models—possibly Bayardelle’s as well—include literary writers like Walker and Phillis Wheatley, which probably accounts for some of the story’s darker material and offbeat moments. Shida’s world is defined almost entirely by women: her laissez-faire mother, her stern-yet-supportive schoolteacher, and her stereotypically sassy best friend Jackie, who eventually throws God at her, Perry–style, and gets her to rehab. Sometimes they upstage the protagonist; Jackie in particular talks so much you wonder where Shida went. The only one of Shida’s boyfriends we meet is a transgender man, but like every other delicate issue raised in the musical, Bayardelle handles his presence with the subtlety of 9/11.
In fact, nearly every moment of Shida is shamelessly derivative and predictable, the songs and dialogue glued together with verbal and musical clichés. Bayardelle’s performance of Tony, the trans man, and Shida’s stint as a defiant rock ‘n’ roll crack whore stand above the tired portrayals of many minor characters. If only Bayardelle’s copious adrenaline and powerful pipes could carry the day. She has attempted something impossible for any writer: to tell the story of a writer more talented than herself.