'Honey Chil' shatters myths about black women


THE STEREOTYPICAL images of black women from enslavement to the present -- the loving and bossy mammy, the cute little pickaninny, the tragic mulatto -- are embodied in the strong satirical piece, "Honey Chil' Milk," currently engaging the talents of seven singular Baltimoreans.

Playing at the Theatre Project through Sunday, the series of broadly humorous vignettes based on painful racial experience was created by choreographer and dancer Donald Byrd and the cast of five black actresses and two white male performers.

"We want to shatter the preconceived myths surrounding black women in the entertainment media fostered by white America," said Vell L. Wheeler, Baltimore actress and playwright and one of the leading members of the experimental theater group Kuumba.

Wheeler, who holds a degree in theater from Morgan State University, and Christopher Eaves, a graduate of Towson State University's mime and movement program, were meeting in the Theatre Project conference room to talk about their often shocking original work.

"Everything was developed in the rehearsal process," said Eaves, now an established New York performer who will direct a student ensemble at his alma mater in September.

"A lot of the work was taken from real things that have happened to us," said Wheeler, "the hardships, the attitudes. We improvised our experiences."

"Donald as director was very much into drawing the blood of the piece," said Eaves, "He would say 'Take the idea and go for it. Come back tomorrow and share with us'.

"He wanted to show how black women were forced to play stereotypes in films, TV and on stage and how it is hard for society to see them in any other way."

The name "Honey Chil' Milk" also grew out of workshop collaboration.

"Donald asked us what to call the piece," said Eaves. "He said if you were a mammy what would you say?"

"The loyal old Southern mammy was always looking after massa's white kid," said Wheeler in hackneyed dialect. "'Honey Chil' drink you milk!' Its a natural. When I think of 'Mammy' I think of big breasts and milk."

The 50-minute production features dance and stream of consciousness monologues and scenes. The original music is by Paul Mathews, who studied music and English at Towson State University and is working on his master's degree at Carnegie Mellon.

Also participating in the theater work are: Sheila Gaskins, a stand-up comic in the Baltimore-Washington area who is known as "Strawberry"; Harriette Lane, a playwright and actress with Family Circle Theatre, Actors Against Drugs and Kuumba; Toni Richards, actress and member of Kuumba; Joyce J. Scott, a visual and performing artist and half of the comedy duo, "Thunder Thigh Revue," with Kay Lawal.

"'Honey Chil" was created two years ago at Diverse Works," said Eaves, a curly-headed blond young man with an expressive face.

"We performed at Towson State University and later for the Brooklyn Arts Council in New York," added Wheeler.

Wheeler, a striking woman with long braided hair, was wearing an African type tunic over black and white zebra striped pants and large looped earrings. She feels the "real" black sisters are not getting a break.

"Some of the black TV and movie stars have sold out," she said. "Had their hair straightened, lightened their eyes with contact lenses, changed their appearance. The real sisters stay with their ethnic heritage."

This point is amusingly covered in the first part of the theater program.

"The second part of the show, 'Encore,' is loosely structured improvisational bits," Wheeler said. "In this piece we are trying out new ideas. They are works in progress and lighter than 'Honey Chil'."

"It is an opportunity to get audience feedback," said Eaves. "In 'Encore" I get to do rap. I feel part of the ethnic experience, a real brother."

"Chris is really a black man in white face," teased Wheeler. "Have you seen him tap dance?"

Eaves does do a fancy tap in the play's broad minstrel parody dressed in a white plantation suit, one of his several parts as the white antagonist in the show.

"My roles in 'Honey Chil" are satisfying for me as an artist but disturbing for me as a person," he said. "It is a very intense show, very alarming. I come out and throw a black woman down, beat her up, rape her. We have to deal with the harshness of the whole thing."

For reservations and ticket price information. call the Theatre Project box office at 752-8558.

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