This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
You know the stories you tell to justify your life? It could be why you do what you do or why you live in LA. Or even why you had kids or maybe why you never did.
Those stories always work on more than one level. There's the story itself, the facts: the who and what. Then there's the deeper level: the choice to tell the story in the first place and what stories you tell to make sense of where you are.
Charlayne Woodard latest solo show, The Night Watcher, is one of those stories. She's trying to tackle the tough question: Why has she never had kids?
In Ms. Woodard's case this question is a real doozy because the world seems to be constantly thrusting children into her arms. She begins the two-hour show with the story of fellow actress, Alfre Woodard (no relation), asking her to come over to Cedars' Sinai and adopt a young mother's baby "fresh out the oven.” It's wonderfully telling that Ms. Woodard had hoped Alfre might be offering her an acting role not a baby. Ms. Woodard captures the excitement and terror as she and her husband toy with the idea of being parents. In 30 seconds she goes from racing over to the hospital to the tempering advice of her husband that a child would profoundly change their lives - oh, for a couple of decades. Ms. Woodard comes to her senses and using the language of Hollywood calls back and says, "We're passing. We're not ready. We have to pass.”
The rest of the evening can be read as a defense and hopeful acquittal against the charge that she's done something wrong. As a stranger on the subway shames her, ""What kind of woman are you? God created you to reproduce… for increase! You spit in God's eye!”
As an evening of stories it's moving and entertaining, the audience gasps and cries at precisely the right moments…but that's really just the first level. What's more intriguing is that Ms. Woodard feels compelled to offer a defense in the first place.
As a playwright, Ms. Woodard is acutely aware of the terrain she's traversing and the criticisms she's facing. In a wonderfully comic and poignant moment she recounts buying a $150 shearling coat…for her dog. She not only embraces the charge that the dog is like a child - she uses it as the intermission cliff-hanger.
I suspect that most of the audience encounters these tales as an opportunity to measure their own life choices. I don't imagine there are many converts at the end of the performance. For those who, like Ms. Woodard, value "freedom” and believe in the transformative power of a really good ‘auntie,' the show's an inspiring vindication.
For some in the audience, parents among them, I suspect the very thing that makes the show work: its clean elegance - will ring as perhaps a little too convenient. After all, there's nothing tidy about dirty diapers.
What's beautiful and brave about Ms. Woodard's The Night Watcher is that she's talented enough as a performer and brave enough as a writer to allow an audience in to witness her dilemma and come to their own conclusions.
The Night Watcher plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through December 18.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Banner image: Author/performer Charlayne Woodard in The Night Watcher. Photo by Craig Schwartz