Celebration Arts has taken Neat, a one-woman show by talented actress Charlayne Woodard, and turned it into a full-cast celebration of family and personal strength.Woodard (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ER) tells the story of her own life through the lens of her relationship with her aunt, Beneatha “Neat” Harris, who became developmentally disabled as a result of an accident with medication. The accident was spurred by the refusal of a Jim Crow southern hospital to treat the 6-month-old infant.
Under James Wheatley’s direction, the role of Charlayne is split between Deadra LaShawn Elam and Traci Scott. During the first act, Elam plays Charlayne as a child and young teen, providing excitement and appropriate amounts of adolescent angst. Scott, on the other hand, brings a droll sense of humor to her telling of the later teenage years, including Charlayne’s growing education in the realm of black history, American racism and the attraction that (bad) boys hold. It’s a risky decision to split a major voice, but these two fine actresses do the role justice and illuminate different aspects of the character.
As Neat, Tisha Hill-Smith is a revelation, for she brings the disabled young woman to life without using anything close to a stereotype of a developmentally delayed person. Neat may be the inspirational character in Charlayne’s story, but Hill-Smith never lets us forget that she was also fully and completely a woman of her own.
Betty Cummings, K.T. Masala and Alana Mathews round out the cast, each taking on multiple roles and coming together as a chorus of family and friends. They are essential to making the piece work, simply because it is about the power of the family to build the individual, and thereby build the culture.