Kandace Crystal Shines in One-Woman Show ‘Neat’ at Scripps Ranch Theatre
In a fearless, compelling portrayal of one woman’s coming-of-age experience, Kandace Crystal leaves it all on the stage in Neat, a Scripps Ranch Theatre and Loud Fridge co-production currently running through April 16.
Written by Charlayne Woodard, the autobiographical drama begins by introducing the members of the storyteller’s family through a tragic experience that results in intellectual disability for her Aunt Beneatha (Neat). As the story begins, the audience watches Neat ingest camphorated oil when an illiterate family caregiver inadvertently administers a dose from the wrong bottle. Though mother Grace seeks immediate medical attention, the infant is refused treatment due to the color of her skin and hospital policy in 1940s Georgia. By the time Grace is able to get the baby to a doctor, it is too late. Shifting some time forward to Albany, New York, the remainder of the story follows Charlayne’s coming-of-age experiences and the ways in which her interactions with her child-like aunt shape her life and future.
As the show is written for a single performer, actor Kandace Crystal portrays each character in turn: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, sisters, lead storyteller Charlayne, teachers, and others. Crystal’s range as a performer is on full display in Neat; as the story unfolds, she competently manifests childlike wonder, silliness, terror, joy, and more in tackling Charlayne’s wide range of experiences from playing hide-and-seek to overcoming turmoil to embrace her natural hair, and from developing a young crush to escaping police violence spurred by trusted school officials.
Crystal’s unapologetically physical approach to the role is disarmingly enchanting in moments of play and emotionally devastating in moments of loss; as an actor, her commitment to becoming Charlayne is fearless and stunning. Since it navigates the playwright’s transition to adulthood, this script carries the pressure of portraying many challenging moments that Charlayne must contend with while, throughout, there is a sense of wonder and hope that alights from her interactions with Neat. This dichotomy is striking and perfectly piloted in Crystal’s hands.
The play is also beautifully enhanced by dancer/choreographer Nicole Diaz-Pellot’s movement, which is infused throughout the production and used to punctuate key moments in Charlayne’s life. The program notes describe how Neat’s “enormous love, energy, simplicity, and magnificent clarity” teach Charlayne “what it is to cherish life;” in keeping with that, Diaz-Pellot has integrated tender and playful moments, but she has also found notes of celebration, awakening, and power and has pulled those in with what the script calls, “a dance that reminded them… they could still hold onto a hope of a life of freedom one day.”
Under Claire Simba’s direction, Neat is told on a blank canvas of a stage (Alyssa Kane) which features only occasional projections (Ted Leib) and simple animations (Leigh Akin) as well as the use of a wooden chair to tell the story; this is effective as it allows the performers, both Crystal and Diaz-Pellot, to be the focus of attention and to share Woodard’s experiences through their voices and bodies. Sound design (Omar Ramos) and lighting design (Lindsay Alayne Stevens) also serve to complement the moments portrayed, which take place over a large stretch of time from 1943-1972.
Beautifully told and executed, Neat is a story of growth, both loud and quiet, and how we are impacted by the people nearest to us in subtle, beautiful, and life-changing ways. In the script, Woodard pens, speaking of her aunt: “Neat is fearless.” In terms of the play, I am inclined to agree.
Neat plays at Scripps Ranch Theatre until April 16.
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