Playwright Cheryl West can tell you about a family she knew from Chicago in which the mother was a drug addict One Christmas, high as a kite, the woman sold her children’s toys on the streets and used the money to buy crack cocaine. West, a former human-services counselor, recalls another real-life mother who shot her own daughter at close range, determined that she would not grow up in such a brutal world. The suffering of innocent urban children is what motivated West’s new play, Holiday Heart, and what fuels its barely concealed howl of pain.
Currently crossing the country in an innovative three-way co-production Holiday Heart first found life this past January in a production directed by Tazewell Thompson (a longtime West admirer and-collaborator) at New York’s Syracuse Stage. Aside from some minor technical adjustments, audiences at the Cleveland Play House saw the same production this March. The cast has now moved to Seattle, where the play, a warm but sometimes harrowing opened at the Seattle Repertory Theatre on April 20. Although the play was cast designed and rehearsed in New York State, all three theatres have shared equally in production and transportation costs.
The title of the drama comes from the name of the affable and emotionally stable drag queen at the play’s center, a man forced to become an all-in-one parent to a sad but resilient Chicago 12-year-old, who has been abandoned by her mother. Played by the physically imposing Keith Randall Smith – a broadchested man who stands over six feet tall – and exuberantly dressed in Paul Tazewell’s splendidly garish costumes, Holiday Heart is a sympathetic, warmly humorous figure.
When we first meet mother and daughter (played by Harriett D. Foy and LaShonda Hunt), the two have a materially impoverished but emotionally rich existence, with the flamboyant but neighborly Holiday Heart forming part of their extended family.
Frustrated by a lack of opportunity and rejection letters from publishers to whom she has sent poetry – and enticed by cocaine left in her home by a drug-dealing boyfriend – the mother soon finds herself trapped in her old habit, which she finances by selling her body on the streets. The spunky but needy child, who functions as the play’s narrator, must come to terms not only with being abandoned by her mother, but also her growing awareness of what her mother’s new life entails.
In short order, Holiday has become the girl’s earnest, if somewhat comical, substitute parent. West has fun with scenarios of the pair’s unusual new domestic life, as the eccentric man is forced to, deal with the perils of teenage menstruation and tries to offer lessons in sex education. West is constantly at pains to show that society’s notions of family must be as inclusive as possible and that even the seemingly wretched members of a community can offer some help to a child – including the play’s drug dealer (Ron C. Jones), who never touches his own wares, and is portrayed as a decent human being struggling to do his limited best for the troubled girl.
Issues that are taboo
West refuses to pander to the stereotypes common to most naturalistic dramas of this genre. The playwright also amply demonstrates her fine ear for the vernacular, creating a poetic urban drama with a rhythm akin to a jazz composition. But for all its strengths of character and speech the play’s most striking moment occurs in the final scene, when its inherent sadness gains the upper hand and the drama reaches an unexpected and violent conclusion.
At the Cleveland Play House, unsuspecting audiences reacted to the startling ending either in shocked silence or with gasps – and even a few screams – of horror. The force of the ending powerfully confirms the play’s abiding message – that our myopic and self-obsessed society must take notice of (and responsibility for) its blameless, suffering children.
West says that she felt some pressure to soften the brutal climax at one point but Thompson persuaded her to remain true to her original impulses. “I told her that this was the ending that was true to the play,” he remembers. “When drugs are involved, no one wins.”
West, a 37-year-old resident of Champagne, Ill. who spent 15 years in the social services field – one of her last non-theatrical jobs was as an HIV-testing counselor – has never been reluctant to tackle serious issues, even those taboo in a black community that often suffers from denial. Her first major play, Before It Hits Home, deals with a young African-American forced to tell his disbelieving and non-supportive family that he has AIDS. After Thompson directed the production at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, this piece by the then-unknown writer won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize.
Mothers and daughters
Not all West’s plays have been entirely successful. jar the Floor, which was produced in several regional theatres last year, is an alternately humorous and sad piece of domestic realism in which West probes four generations of relationships between mothers and daughters, demonstrating each time how the women have been too busy fighting the influence of their mothers to effectively communicate with them. The play proved entertaining but formulaic. Puddin’and Pete, a weak romantic comedy which premiered last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, was awkward and mawkishly sentimental. In comparison with these earlier plays, Holiday Heart seems revelatory.
West owes a great deal to Thompson, who first discovered the playwright’s work, at a multicultural playwriting festival in Seattle. “I greatly admire her courage,” says the director. “She takes a Pandora’s Box of difficult issues and uses them to bring audiences together.”
West herself is a charming and quiet-spoken woman who modestly downplays her ongoing screenwriting projects with Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. But it immediately becomes obvious that the impulse for Holiday Heart came straight from her soul. “You can still save a child at 13,” she says with light in her eyes. “Maybe, after seeing this play, people will make a re-commitment to their own families. Maybe people will be less inclined to think that only a certain kind of parent can love. And maybe, next time they see violent pictures on television, people will ask themselves what they can do to change things.”