'Neat' weaves tales of southern fantasies and northern realities


Presented by Kitchen Theatre Company

Location 417 W. State Street/MLK Jr. Street, Ithaca

When October 19- Nov. 6

Tickets $18-$32  Online or from box office: (607) 273-4497

Review By Kelundra Smith

In the wonderfully written, autobiographical play "Neat" by Charlayne Woodard, the moments that change Charlayne are marked by  things as simple as one of her teachers in her all-white school struggling to pronounce her name, to being rejected by her high school’s principal for wanting black history books in the library.

The play opened at the Kitchen Theatre on Friday, October 22 to a sold-out house and runs through November 6. Sarah Lampert Hoover directs this one-woman show starring Karen Pittman, whose repertoire includes roles on 30 Rock and Law & Order. Pittman plays Charlayne, as well as an eclectic mix of friends and relatives.

Neat is set in Garden City, Ga., just northwest of Savannah, and Albany, NY in the years 1943 to 1971. The set consists of five windows with off-white, sheer curtains hanging from the ceiling, and a single cherry wood chair on a floor painted with primary colors.

The play begins with Charlayne re-telling how her favorite aunt, Neat, became mentally retarded, and follows her as she grows up during the Civil Rights Movement. Charlayne visits her grandparents and Aunt Neat in Garden City every summer until she is 11, and southern life is painted as a fantasy as she fondly remembers climbing trees, running through sugar cane fields and eating thrills (frozen Kool-Aid with popsicle sticks in a cup). Then, when she is 14 her grandmother and Aunt Neat move to Albany.

In this three-year time lapse Charlayne’s infatuation with her aunt turns into embarrassment because of her whimsical behavior and southern accent. Charlayne starts to conform to the ways of her wealthier, Jewish classmates, while her aunt Neat continually encourages her to answer the question, “Who are we?” This sends Charlayne on a journey for identity, or as she says, “I went from Emily Dickinson to Nikki Giovanni, from a flip to a fro.”

There are no props in the play, except a single rose in the beginning, and the lighting and sound designs aid scene transitions from north to south, outside to inside. Sounds of running feet and a serve at a volleyball game, enhance the story, and so does James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” playing as an anthem for Charlayne’s youth. The lights at the top of the show capture the orange, Georgia sky at sunset, as well as a gray sky with the silhouette of an angel at the end.

Unlike most one-person shows where the actor embodies each character vocally and physically, Pittman’s performance is more like Charlayne’s impressions of the people around her. When she is talking about her grandmother she hunches her back and walks slowly, but maintains Charlayne’s voice. This choice works for the majority of the play, but there are moments where vocal variety would have helped distinguish the characters, like when Charlayne tells the story of her mother coming to her school to fix her hair after a swimming class. It is difficult to distinguish between mother and grandmother.

This is especially important because Pittman shines in the second act where the stories are more intimate, and Charlayne starts to learn the ways in which she can be revolutionary. Pittman successfully distinguishes the men in Charlayne’s life, from the pharmacist to her first boyfriend Charles Bowman. She deepens her voice, changes her walk and rubs her torso to introduce the audience to Charles, the toughest guy in school, who picks her as his girlfriend, before she ever shows interest in him.

This revolution is also seen in her wardrobe change, from brown crop pants and an orange, cotton, shirt-dress in the first act, to a burgundy, psychedelic, patterned top, corduroy pants and Converse tennis shoes in the second act. When Aunt Neat gets a job, Charlayne has her first kiss, paralleling their independence.

Pittman balances humor and sadness well, and keeps the audience with her, laughing when she laughs, and sighing when she’s sad. And when Charlayne finds the answer to Neat’s question in a South African boot dance, derived from miners who came from underground, “with heavy boots and heavy burdens” and danced, the audience celebrates with her.