Cheryl L. West is not a playwright who paints pretty pictures. In "Before It Hits Home," she tackled the impact of AIDS on the black community. In "Jar the Floor" she dealt with sexual abuse. Now, in "Holiday Heart," West combines the difficult subjects of drug addiction, single parenthood and transvestism.
Though West's subject matter may sound diverse, in all three of these plays she explores the common theme of family. But the family in "Holiday Heart" -- receiving a moving production at Washington's Arena Stage -- is so wildly unconventional that several characters label it freakish.
At the start of the play, the members of this urban black family consist of 12-year-old Niki, a precocious young lady who also serves as narrator; her mother, Wanda, a recovering drug addict; and their neighbor, a professional drag queen who goes by the name of Holiday Heart.
Though Holiday and Wanda ostensibly fill the roles of Niki's parents, Holiday is actually mother and father to them both. Flamboyant as amply girthed Jeffrey V. Thompson is in the role -- in one of his most comical incarnations he appears costumed by designer Paul Tazewell as, literally, a queen-sized Tina Turner -- he keeps this family straight.
Among the many attributes of "Holiday Heart" are the ways it NTC re-defines not only the word "family," but also the word "straight." Holiday helped Wanda get off drugs; he accompanies mother and daughter to church. In short, he represents the only stability they've ever known. And, though he may wear a dress, Holiday follows the straight and narrow far more assiduously than the newcomer Wanda introduces into this family -- her boyfriend, Silas. A clean-cut gentleman, Silas aspires to middle-class respectability, but the only way he knows to get there is by selling drugs.
Director Gilbert McCauley keeps the action fluid, occasionally using overlapping scenes to avoid slipping into sentimentality. Primarily, however, he has avoided treacle by assembling a cast skilled at probing emotional depths. This is true not only of Thompson, in the play's showiest role, but of young Afi McClendon, whose Niki is three-fourths old before her time and one-fourth girlishly naive -- for much of the play she can't 'N understand why Holiday and her mother don't get married.
If Niki seems like an under-aged grown-up, however, her mother, Wanda, is in many ways still a little girl -- a quality that actress Donna Biscoe conveys with an adroit balance of charm and desperation. The doll that Wanda gives her daughter as a birthday present serves as an ideal metaphor for this. On stage throughout most of the play, this beautiful doll represents the childhood Wanda never had; later, when she gives into her addiction and steals the doll, it is a dire warning of how far she has fallen.
As the wise, sensible character of Holiday Heart suggests, West is a playwright who bashes stereotypes. There are no villains in this piece -- only flawed, complex human beings. Ron Cephas Jones' portrayal of Silas is a perfect example. Though few occupations are as reprehensible as drug dealing, Jones shows us a core of goodness in this dangerously misguided character.
"Holiday Heart" is heartbreaking drama, but West leavens her cautionary tale with humor. That leavening is especially necessary in light of the no-holds-barred final scene. Despite a small dramaturgical flaw concerning Niki's awareness of Holiday's fate, it's a finale guaranteed to take an audience's breath away.
And, like the rest of this involving show, it reinforces West's courageous talent for portraying hard-edged reality head-on.
Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays, and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Nov. 19 Tickets: $23-$42
Call: (202) 488-3300