Henrietta was first produced in New York about 21 years ago. The script by Karen Jones-Meadows introduces us to a spunky Harlem bag lady in her 50s, with a penchant for loudly announcing exactly what’s on her mind. She is boldly assertive yet humorous and often warm. She has more than one screw loose, but sometimes her remarks cut close to the bone.Like many derelicts, Henrietta has a touch of lunacy, and we gradually learn that she’s endured losses that would test anyone’s sanity. But Henrietta’s madness (like Hamlet’s) is deliberate to a degree. She appreciates that being “crazy” also allows her a degree of personal freedom, and even protection.
The play describes the arc of Henrietta’s unlikely friendship with Sheleeah, a sexy, well-dressed, young professional woman. Henrietta and Sheleeah have utterly different lifestyles and goals, and yet, in a strange way, they need each other.
Henrietta, as produced locally by Celebration Arts, is at times effective but at other times quite uneven. Actress Coni Taylor (as Henrietta) does the street lady with aplomb, focusing her intense, unpredictable demands on Sheleeah and occasionally on members of the audience. Actress Cecily J. (as Sheleeah) develops a credible relationship with Henrietta. Gregory Jolivette rounds out the cast as Henrietta’s landlord. But the production (directed by Linda Barton White) moves awkwardly, with pauses between scenes, occasional lapses of momentum and continuity, and glitches with sound and lighting.
Henrietta is an interesting piece, with some good acting, but this production comes up short in several areas. At the same time, Henrietta has more to say than several glossier, more mainstream shows about town. We recommend Henrietta, notwithstanding its shortcomings, while simultaneously hoping for more consistency and polish in the next effort from Celebration Arts.