Cheryl L. West writes plays that often trump those of master playwright August Wilson — not only meticulous neo-realist slices of African-American life but dense, ethereal explorations of language and the inner regions of her character’s souls. They are vigorously expressionistic, and yet remain grounded, entertaining theater.
Here, West and director Seret Scott cast the illustrious S. Epatha Merkerson (Lt. Van Buren on TV’s Law & Order) as the spirited, beleaguered title character. Through an ingenious mix of audience-directed monologues and staged dramatic scenes, Birdie narrates her tale of migrating to Chicago’s segregated South Side in search of prosperity, instead meeting constant disappointment, both socially and personally. Scott’s production is a collage of Birdie across time periods of her life with hopelessly romantic, debilitated third husband Jackson, juvenile-turned-radical son Bam, and “high society” older sister Minerva.
The portrayal of this cross-section of souls is top notch, Charles Weldon effortlessly jumping in and out of Jackson’s various personas — sweet-talking boy-toy to helpless, bedridden man. Billy Porter’s tour-de-force as all additional cast —weeping eight year old, wannabe Black Panther, confused cross-dressing teenager, and middle-aged woman, is a riot.
But it is Merkerson who is the production’s soul, her portrait of this fascinating woman as familiar as Billie Holiday or Scarlett O’Hara. The weeping in the seats around me as the back wall of the stage rose to reveal a sea of cascading lights leading Birdie to another world was plentiful, the sentiment of spiritual transcendence.
Second Stage Theater, 307 W 43rd St, at Eighth Avenue.