How 'Wonder in My Soul' uses Baltimore neighborhoods to enhance Center Stage play

“A Wonder in My Soul” is a play told through six voices. Audience members don’t watch this show at Center Stage as much as listen to it — and not just because the characters sometimes break into song.

In Marcus Gardley’s play, it’s 2008. Barack Obama is about to be elected the U.S.’s first black president. On Baltimore’s Gay Street, an African-American hair salon struggles to survive urban gentrification.

A Chicago-based playwright, Gardley initially set “Wonder” in the Windy City. But the characters confront issues from urban violence to white flight that transfer seamlessly to Baltimore. The playwright spent several days in Maryland last summer, tweaking the script to include references to local notables and defining historic events, like the 1968 riots.

Gardley has a gift for describing the way things sound. His meaning is communicated partly through the cadence of rising and falling voices and in silences stretching between words.

“Just listen to that wind,” one character says. “It’s whistling like a flute — the way it wafts through trees, through branches like a violin bow rubbing against strings.”

Rather than explaining the characters, we figured we’d show you who they are through their words. Below is a list of the five women and one man who populate “Wonder.”

  • Gwynn Oak Falls, portrayed by actress Wandachristine Co-owner of Gwynn & Swann’s Beauty Palace of Cosmetology and the single mother of two adult children.

Local references: Her name is a mashup of Gwynn Oak in Baltimore County and Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls neighborhood.

Her problem: She and her best friend/business partner have loaned money to Gwynn’s son and he hasn’t paid them back. Now, they’re eight months behind on the rent.

Signature look: Wig designer Cherelle Guyton combined several 2008 hair trends to emphasize Gwynn’s standing as a community pillar. Her ginger-colored wig is cut short in the back but lifts skyward at the top and crown. “I enhanced her fierceness by adding honey blonde highlights and styling a right-facing sprout heightened by soft spikes and swirls,” Guyton wrote in an email.

Quote: “You got your hair done and felt ten feel taller: releasing a beauty found within.”

Swann Park Sinclair, co-owner of the hair salon (performed by actress Harriett D. Foy.)

Local references: Swann Park is located in Port Covington. Center Stage officials says her last name is a reference to Sinclair Lane in Baltimore’s Darley Park neighborhood; others may also think of the The Sinclair Broadcast Group in Hunt Valley.

Her problem: Swann’s once-promising singing careerwas derailed by racism and her refusal to abandon her best friend in mid-crisis.

Superpower: Swann isn’t a star stylist, but an instinctive healer who homes in on her customers’ inner wounds and provides perspective that turns tragedy into triumph.

Signature look: Because Swann describes herself in the script as “a black woman with a natural,” Guyton created a voluminous, off-black long curly wig with a streak of gray that signals the character’s bolt-from-the-blue flashes of intuition. Swann’s locks are styled high and wide, Guyton wrote, “like the wings of a swan.”

Quote: “I’m twenty percent psychic, the rest of me is water.”

  • Andrew Edmondson Hill: Gwynn’s adult son, a community activist, CEO and founder of a nonprofit that works with at-risk boys. Portrayed by actor Stanley Andrew Jackson III.

Local references: His name is a nod to the popular R&B group Dru Hill and Baltimore’s Edmondson Avenue.

His problem: Drew is about to be indicted for embezzling federal funds,. and by borrowing money from his mother’s salon he has left the business facing imminent foreclosure.

Signature look: Drew sports a low fade on the sides and back with a coiled medium-sized flat top, Guyton wrote, combining 2008 trends with corporate standards of neatness and professionalism.

Quote: “You want to know why they came after me? It’s cause I don’t follow the rules. I will get these kids out of this war zone, out of this hood by any means necessary — and I refuse to apologize.”

  • Cherry Hill Gwynn’s daughter, a Baltimore Police Department sergeant. (Played by actress Anastacia McClesky)

Local references: Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood was developed during the segregated 1940s as an enclave for African-Americans returning home after fighting in World War II.

Her problem: In the shadow of her high-achieving brother, Cherry constantly tries and fails to win her mother’s approval.

Signature look: Actress McClesky originally wore a wig, but the creative team later decided that Cherry’s simplicity and authenticity were best conveyed by the actress’ actual hairstyle: a low cut faded at the top and back with about four inches of curls at the top and crown.

Quote: “You treat him like a king and you treat me like the court jester.”

  • First Lady Cedonia Mosher (portrayed by actress Alexis J. Roston), a longtime salon customer who runs a thriving church with her husband.

Local references: Her driver’s license name combines two Baltimore neighborhoods: Cedonia and Mosher. But she’s referred to by other characters almost exclusively as “First Lady.” She explains it like this: “I’m not a Mrs. … Mrs. is for regular women and I’m not regular. I’m a lady, first and foremost: First Lady.”

Her problem: As a black Republican who does not support Obama for president, First Lady frequently feels like an outsider.

Signature look: “While First Lady’s beliefs may be conservative, her hair most certainly is not,” Guyton wrote. “She wears a long bob … with varying shades of red, brown, and blonde.”

Quote: I don’t eat black-eyed peas, chitterlings or fried foods. I don’t hip or hop or listen to any kind of rap because they talk too damn fast and degrade women. … But I am still black. because blackness should be about having soul and not just skin color.

  • Pen Lucy: First Lady’s new personal assistant and a struggling single mother. Portrayed by actress Kalilah Black.

Local references: She’s named after one of Baltimore’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Her problem: Pen Lucy has three young children, is pregnant with twins and broke. Her landlord is converting her building to condos and just gave her 30 days notice to vacate.

Signature look: Pen Lucy wears two wigs in the show. Swann restyles Pen Lucy’s overly curly, messy ponytail into a a dramatic short cut that’s jet black in the back and a bright blonde on top. Pen Lucy’s wigs, Guyton says, tell the story of a character undergoing a transformation.

Quote: “ One of the toddlers work up crying with a fever and I couldn’t find his medicine and my baby’s daddy was supposed to come and get them but we kinda fightin’ so I had to do everything myself and before you know it I was running late and I got a call from my landlord and forgot to watch the eggs and the house almost caught on fire…”

“A Wonder in My Soul” runs through Dec. 23 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N.Calvert St. $20-$79. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

This story has been updated to clarify the local references to the character Swann Park Sinclair's name.
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