At the Unicorn, comedy saves the prison drama

Like a single parent or a Grand Theft Auto game, Zina Camblin’s likable play And Her Hair Went With Her tries to do so much — to give so much — that it’s occasionally a mess. Fortunately, with the commanding comic Nedra Dixon playing half the parts, it’s the kind of mess you root for, which makes all the difference as its mood swings and out-of-nowhere enthusiasms work against its impressive strengths.

Those strengths include sharp performances, humor that’s both well-observed and silly as hell, and a welcome eagerness to stab at great truths. For me, this generated much goodwill — a commodity that I found myself needing once the opening scenes’ sketch comedy suddenly became a prison drama. Or a birth-of-a-writer, coming-of-age story. Or a thorough reconstruction of the cultural moment that was the end of the first season of American Idol. Or, more welcome, a thoughtful confab on the state of black women and black hair. Or, less welcome, the Nina Simone trivia contest that is as close to a spine as the show ever develops.

Simone’s stark music plays between scenes, doing the hard work of setting mood and establishing transitions. Dixon and Teisha M. Bankston star as black hairstylists who spend their day razzing each other and gabbing about Simone and their clients. (The shop, designed by Jason Coale, is a vision of wigs and lived-in detail, all beneath a museum-style collection of oversized portraits of influential black women.) After a couple of lighthearted minutes that establish Bankston as a women’s-studies college type and Dixon as her street-smart opposite, the set goes dark; the stage spins, and Simone sings, her words and voice plumbing depths that the script can’t.

Then comes the first of many memorable — if unbelievable — sketch-comedy scenes in which Dixon and Bankston take turns cutting loose as cartoonish beauty-shop clients. Dixon plays a black woman who has tried to pass as a white blonde since her childhood; Bankston is an entrepreneurial germophobe who has coined “BOCD,” an abbreviation for Black Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. These scenes are cutting and absurd, with Bankston launching herself after the jokes and Dixon maintaining a clipped dignity even when playing a comic grotesque.

Director Jacqueline L. Gafford handles the escalating silliness well. One set piece involving Bankston as an actress worried about an upcoming audition boasts more first-rate punch lines and performances than some entire shows.

Blackouts follow plus more music from that singular Simone — our only cue that the play will darken. Inexplicably, Camblin filibusters her own comedy with a series of grim scenes set in a women’s prison. As fine as Dixon is playing a gangsta lesbian incarcerated for murder, the audience around me actively resisted this sudden shift, especially the first time. People checked programs and phones, and a conversation started in the front row. Two follow-up jailhouse scenes went over better, but they still felt as though someone had accidentally inserted some pages from Audition Scenes for Actors into the script.

By the end, when the hairstylists holler at each other for 15 minutes and then learn their various lessons, And Her Hair Went With Her has achieved just enough of what it has attempted. It’s scattered and occasionally tiresome, but it’s also passionate, serious and often hilarious — all virtues of its cast.

Speaking of audience goodwill, I’ve rarely been more moved than I was this past Sunday morning at the Kansas City premiere of Mark Koval’s choral piece We the People, an oratorio on the subject of gay marriage, performed by the choir at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. For the Unitarians, of course, goodwill is the point, so it’s no surprise that after a sunny welcome from the Rev. Lee Devoe and moving testimony from Scott England and Kelly Marzett (two Kansas City men married in California), I would have forgiven the choir anything.

The performance needed no such handicapping, though. Led by Anthony Edwards, the singers sounded a touch ragged but ablaze with truth. Koval opens with a solemn treatment of the preamble to the Constitution, then adds layers of narration (delivered by the superb Bruce Roach) that expose the fallacies behind common objections to gay marriage and swell by the end to a powerhouse consideration not just of marriage and freedom but also of the universality of love itself. Cellists and ringers from the theatrical world augmented the All Souls choir, and Daniel Doss’ piano accompaniment found a beautiful unison in Koval’s mix of pop, gospel and show-tune influences.

Affected as I was by the music, I left thinking about England and Marzett, who delivered the finest, truest bit of theater I caught this week. “Here’s a copy of our California marriage certificate,” Marzett announced. “And here’s what it’s worth in Missouri.”

He crumpled and chucked it.

Categories: A&E, Stage