review: dreams of sarah breedlove

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[originally published: http://www.aislesay.com/CHI-DREAMS.html]

THE DREAMS OF SARAH BREEDLOVE

Written and Directed by Regina Taylor
Starring L. Scott Caldwell and Keith Randolph Smith
Goodman Theatre
170 North Dearborn / (312) 443-3811
goodmantheatre.org
Through July 23, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 26, 2006

“The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove” at the Goodman Theatre is at once a classically staged family drama and a dream meditation infused with visions of Africa. This is a play about the American dream of self-creation, of self-invention, of self-naming and a story of one woman’s rise to business success. Along the way, playwright and director Regina Taylor and her design team have created a world of luscious words, luminous sights, and gorgeous sound. This is a stunning production dramatically, visually, thematically, historically, and artistically.

Sarah Breedlove (L. Scott Caldwellloses both parents at age seven, is raised in abuse, finds her way to an early first marriage through which she gains her daughter Nelia and loses her husband, and begins a hardworking life as a maid and laundress. Her vision of a better place for her daughter Nelia (Nikki E. Walker) is clear early as she tells us “how a person looks at a thing matters”; her innate sense of efficiency and business is illustrated by her working out how to hang several times the usual number of items through pulleys and ropes to grow her laundering business; and her talent for treating her hair and those of her friends and neighbors all provide the basis for her next business venture: hair care products for the Negro woman. She says to her daughter “all my wishes are in you”, just as her mother “used to whisper all her wishes and dreams in my ear.” Sarah also talks about her dream of her daughter taking up the burden of the business: “I’ll sit down and watch her rise.” These imposed and possibly misplaced dreams, and the theme of naming is planted here early on. Sarah says “all my life folks have been trying to name me” and she resolves to take only those names that have meaning for her. This same woman becomes the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, builds a vision of hope, is challenged in seeing her own family’s needs and desires. This is an American life.

Sarah meets C.J.Walker ( Keith Randolph Smith), photographer and erstwhile salesman, who joins her business and become her husband. C.J. Walker sees business as selling a dream: “People buy what they need, and what they need is possibility.” Sarah believes, on the other hand, that you develop your own vision of the future rather than being sold that vision. She also tries to impose her vision on her daughter, with problematic results. Mr. Walker is unfaithful while Madame Walker travels to build her business; Freeman B. Random ( Rolando Boyce, Sr.), first encountered as a overeducated Pullman porter becomes attorney and confidant to Madame Walker; and now married daughter Nelia settles in Harlem during its 1920s Renaissance and runs amok even after adopting a child Mae (Libya Pugh). Fortunes are won and lives are altered, and happiness is a challenge for everyone.

Sarah has vision to burn. She says “my dream gave birth to other dreams, until I was surrounded by all my dreams come true.” But she is also unable to see her own daughter clearly. Freeman, her confidante and helpmate, provides a cautionary tone when Madame expresses a wish to attend an international conference. “Negroes,” he says, “no matter how far they get, still need to know their place.” Madame refutes this perspective with the retort “Someone still needs to dare” — to dare to dream. Sarah’s old laundress friend Nola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) becomes a purveyor of Walker products and grows frustrated after Madame’s business decision to broaden her market from solely dedicated stores to general department stores, thereby cutting into the monopoly Walker shop owners like Nola have enjoyed. Nola claims this is robbing her of promised income; Sarah reflects on how any income is Nola’s to earn herself. Sarah proclaims and resolves “How you look at a thing is how you rise up.” How all these characters rise up is through their hopes and dreams, and the strength of their roots. “The root is strong. And so it goes.”

The set design by Scott Bradley is flexible and gorgeous, with simple flies and set pieces and one trap door transforming the set from a backyard strewn with drying laundry to a baggage car on a train to different houses including Lelia’s garishly lit and decorated Harlem home. Lighting by Scott Zielinski works seamlessly with the set to evoke dream and reality, city and country. Sound design by Richard Woodbury is luscious and Daryl Waters‘s compositions beautifully set this piece in rag time then early jazz era America. Costumes by Jacqueline Firkins are suggestive and reflective of characters, beautifully wrought and lovely to see. Dance as choreographed by Hope Clarke permeates the piece from the initial movements of Sarah in the play’s opening dream sequence and other transitions with her recurrent African dream visitor, and occasional dance sequences performed by other characters, especially Lelia in her first scene expressing the joys of a young woman.

This lovely production provides one version of the life of an important American woman of African descent: Madame C.J.Walker. She has told us that her mother “whispered her secrets and dreams in my ears so they didn’t die on the vine.” The life of Madame Walker has been whispered in our ears. It will not die on the vine.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 26, 2006)

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