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Out of aerobics class comes a show on jail life


Among the many attributes of Center Stage's one-woman show series, "Feminine Singular: Women Speak Solo," one of the most laudable has been the diversity of the offerings. Rhodessa Jones' "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women," the last and most unusual show in the series, is diverse in its own right.

Based on Jones' experiences teaching aerobics to women in San Francisco's City Jail in 1987, the show boldly crisscrosses genres and performance styles. In the course of 75 minutes without intermission, Jones sings, dances, engages in direct address, leads the audience in aerobic hand exercises, reads a letter from her incarcerated nephew and, in more traditional theatrical style, depicts several characters, including herself.

In a speech at the end, Jones explains that her work is deliberately unconventional. "Edu-tainment," she calls it -- "theater for the 21st century." And there's no question that she has a specific agenda. "It is but for a flip of fate that it could be me," she says after making the stunned realization that the faces of her imprisoned students remind her of her mother, her sister, her daughter. Carrying this one step further, her work suggests that those faces could belong to our relatives, or indeed, ourselves.

If that suggestion seems presumptuous, consider a chillingly effective introductory sequence in which she seamlessly dances through the life story of an anonymous, but all-too-recognizable, woman. She starts out as a joyful little girl, playing outdoors until her mother affectionately bellows, "Get your big butt into the house." Next she's a young woman, conceiving a child, then giving birth. Finally, she's an abused adult, battered by a man who repeats her mother's words, but with rancor: "Get your big butt into the house."

For the main story line of the piece, Jones stands on a raised exercise platform and portrays herself as a comically perky aerobics instructor. As she has said in interviews, and also acknowledges in the program, she quickly recognized the absurdity of her role at the prison, and she conveys that here. But it would have been interesting to see how she went about altering her curriculum to reach out and connect with her students.

Her portrayals of four of these students are impressive for their variety as well as for the fluidity with which she switches from one to another, occasionally depicting several in a single scene. There's Regina, a tough prostitute who spews attitude and foul language; Mama Pearl, an elderly inmate; Lena, an Italian-American who dreamed of being a dancer before getting hooked on drugs; and Doris, a young, thumb-sucking mother of two, whose chief crime seems to have been loving the wrong man.

The mood of the piece is enhanced by the on-stage saxophone playing of Idris Ackamoor, who doubles as the director. But some of his electronic keyboard riffs between scenes have a jarring, melodramatic feel that detracts from the overall serious tone. The show's stylistic shifts can be jarring, too, but for the most part, this is a strong, distinctive work, authoritatively performed.

Like the previous "Feminine Singular" shows, "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women" -- which played two sold-out performances at Center Stage last season -- is political and intense, but far from humorless. Taken together, the three shows have provided a varied look at what it is to be female -- or more broadly, human -- in an era in which fear, war and crime often seem to overpower love, reason and understanding.

"Politics don't work. Religion is too eclectic. Art can be the parachute that catches us all," Jones says in her final curtain speech. It's an insight that fits this entire series, which has stripped the art of theater to the essentials of a single performer and an audience and has demonstrated how powerful that art can be.

"Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women"

Where: Head Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and May 6; audio- described performance at 8 p.m. May 4, sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. May 6; through May 7

Tickets: $23 and $28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

** 1/2

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