The opening Caribbean-beat number of Trey Anthony’s ‘Da Kink in My Hair—an explosion of technicolor lights and costumes in fuchsia and yellow and cobalt and gold—belies the serious subject matters that come across the Brooklyn doorstep of Letty’s salon, owned by Novelette (a strong and sassy An’Tick Von Morphxing). Novelette is known for being able to divine her customers’ secrets, desires, and fears by touching their hair.
On the surface, this could be one more play with musical interludes, many of them ringing, girl-power tunes designed to unite the women on stage and encourage the audience to cheer. That would miss the point. ‘Da Kink is really about the messy business of getting on with life, even as you’re coping with tragedies too great to bear.
Underneath the repartee, the dancing and the singing are explorations of the relationships black women have with their hair: the relaxers, the day-long salon trips to tame it, the judgement they face from a wider world for both their hair choices and their very existence.
Each of Novelette’s customers gets a turn in her chair and a significant monologue that delves deeper into her character. They’re delivered in spotlight, with the rest of the stage blacked out, a kind of breaking-the-fourth-wall convention that works well once—and seems formulaic after the third one, no matter how good the cast.
And make no mistake: The cast is good. Detria Ward, an Ensemble regular, showcases her broad range with Sherelle, a Type-A business woman who’s struggling to keep it all together. Jo Anne Davis-Jones delivers a double-entendre-laden salute to finding love late in life, winning catcalls from the audience, and giving her character, Ms. Enid, a heartfelt depth. Annie Wild’s Suzy at first seems out of place as the lone white woman among the African American patrons of Letty’s. But her story, about standing up to—and eventually escaping from—racism to protect her biracial son, is one that should strike audiences as timely and necessary to hear, as will the story of Patsy (Regina Hearne), a devoutly Christian woman who confronts tragedy with faith.
There’s not much glue that holds the piece together, although if there is, it’s for sure Novelette. Von Morphxing’s lilting Caribbean accent is by turns flinty and encouraging. She owns the space as the leader in the world of women, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. She moves about the stage with a striking grace, and has a rich, ringing voice.
Eileen Morris directs her cast with a sensitive and sometimes playful hand, and the resulting performances show a director capable of bringing forth nuance and power. Melanie Bivens’ musical direction results in rousing shared songs, where the emphasis is on both solid voices and on the shared nature of the stories. Winifred Sowell’s set lacks detail, but its bold colors are a brilliant backdrop for Anthony’s words. And Roenia Thompson’s hair and make-up, requiring some changes right there on stage, is really another star in the show.
Trey Anthony has received numerous accolades for her work—this play was adapted into a television show in 2007—and she’s currently working with Tyler Perry on a show for the OWN network. ‘Da Kink is good, but it’s a meandering piece, sometimes straining too much in its serious subtext, as if to atone for its glad-hearted moments.
But its message, to decide who you want to be, that it’s ok to let others see your vulnerable pieces, and to allow yourself to just be, should ring true for everyone.
Thru Oct. 14. Tickets from $30. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St. 713-520-0055. More info and tickets at ensemblehouston.com.