Trey Anthony’s influence in Canadian theatre is remarkable, and ‘da Kink in My Hair sits at the very heart of her contributions to Canadian culture. Originally a box-office-breaking Toronto Fringe offering in 2001, the play has taken on a life of its own and evolved into a modern classic. It has been adapted for television and re-worked as a musical. As part of a partnership between the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Theatre Calgary, the musical has just finished its run in Calgary and now Ottawa audiences are fortunate to see Trey Anthony reprising her role as Novelette at the National Arts Centre until November 5.
Anthony as Novelette is irreverent, saucy, and no-nonsense. The character brings humour and healing to the other women that come through her salon. More importantly, Novelette is also a key literary device that underpins the whole production. Her name may be your first clue that she is the “man behind the curtain” so to speak, and the all-knowing curator of the stories that we hear in this transcendental space. The setting, Letty’s Salon, is a shifting type of reality that allows these women’s stories to be woven together. It’s a space that incorporates a touch of magical realism and, paired with the musical elements of the production, emphasize the indeterminate nature of the stage. The set design by Cory Sincennes blends modern and retro elements. Red-framed mirrors adorn the walls, while dryer chairs and hair cutting stations flank stage right and left, respectively. The most important details of the stage are two elements that are rigged on a pulley system: The larger-than-life Letty’s Salon sign that hangs over the playing arena, and the backdrop that features dozens of black women’s hairstyles. When they are pulled up, we know we’re not at Letty’s anymore….
After a brief exposition, the first monologue is underway. Patsy, a churchgoing woman, sits softly into Novelette’s retro-red hair dressers chair. The lighting shifts as she begins to speak about her son, Romey, and his clever ploys to extend his curfew. The emotive, heart wrenching story recounts the night that Romey was shot for reasons unknown while at a park with a friend. Tamara Brown beautifully portrays Patsy’s sadness, and its slow distortion into regret and anger. By the end of her monologue, she has totally transformed from the soft woman who has walked into Novelette’s salon. The last breath of her monologue is steeped with pure misery, and just then, her words take flight into song. This allows the audience, too, to feel Patsy’s echoing pain. Just as quickly the song ends, we’re back to the salon and Patsy thanks Novelette for her hairstyle.
The pattern repeats itself with the other women and their stories. Anthony’s script riffs on the established format so that the audience can expect something new with each character. Sherelle’s story, for example, begins more softly as she talks about her family’s demands on her time, coupled with the implicit racism she struggles with in her corporate work-life. Her frustration ultimately begets an emotional avalanche that is dark, all-consuming and even surreal. Played by Lennette Randall, Sherelle becomes out of breath, overwhelmed to the point of no return. It’s the type of performance you can feel in your bones. In contrast, Brenda Phillips plays Miss Enid whose story is particularly fun, exuberant and full of mirth. In that case, she truly is telling her story to the room full of women at the salon. It is more purely comedic than the other women, and a good balance to what is otherwise a hefty dose of painful experiences.
Ultimately, there are elements of this musical adaptation that aren’t as successful. Marion J. Caffey’s directorial work can be applauded for his ability to oversee that there is a distinct voice for each character. However, the recurring format of the script is met with recurring staging. By and large, monologues begin as the women sit in Novelette’s chair and tilt their heads back. The monologues themselves are delivered downstage center, cast in the same light. It gives the play a recognizable rhythm and emphasizes the repetitive structure of the piece. The result of the stagnant staging is that the characters begin to feel distant as convention repeats.
Beyond the notable addition of more music, the reboot of ‘da Kink in My Hair at the NAC includes certain of-the-moment references that give way to a bigger issue that has to do with Anthony’s attempt to modernize the piece. That this play has been adapted to television and now, a musical, is a tribute to Anthony’s original vision and the power of this story. However, the version seen at the NAC struggles with arrested development.
One of the characters spits out the words “all lives matters” with derision during a heated monologue. It’s a nod to the modern-day counter-activist slogan that seeks to respond to, or undermine, the Black Lives Matter movement. Otherwise, you won’t find any references to BLM. In the opening monologue, while Patsy is reeling over the death of her son due to gun violence, she slips in a reference to the issue of police violence directed at people of colour. It’s so small, though, and sits blatant and awkward into the rest of her monologue. These are just two examples of the type of modernization that is taking place here, and for each one, the ears perk up and catch the references because they are at odds with the rest of the production. The problem is that Anthony folds in these small pieces of the modern zeitgeist, particularly as they relate to the politicization of race issues, but otherwise, the attitudinal and tonal elements of this play feel “of an era”. There has been a monumental cultural movement alongside Black Lives Matter that feels otherwise avoided by the 2016 production. Is it cynicism about the possibility that the political movements have impacted the conversation about blackness in Canada?
The past and future of this script collide onstage, leaving the audience with a palpable feeling of anachronism. The production is undoubtedly a strong showing of human stories, and the cast are able to meet these bold, broken, and hopeful characters with strong performances. At its best, the production is able to blend heart and humour to confront dark issues that haunt our society. The importance of work like this that showcases the voices of black women in Canada on our main stages cannot be denied. However, here, the production keeps the present, and its audience, at arms length.
‘da Kink in my Hair by Trey Anthony, dir. Marion J. Caffey plays at the National Arts Centre until November 5, 2016. Tickets available at https://nac-cna.ca/.
Miss Enid…Brenda Phillips
Director/Choreographer…Marion J. Caffey
Music Director/Co-Composer…S. Renee Clark
Set and Costume Designer…Corey Sincennes
Lighting Designer…Gerald King
Sound Designer…Bronwyn Bowlby
Sound Designer (Theatre Calgary) …Chris Jacko
Stage Manager…Patti Neice
Assistant Stage Manager…Erin Finn