THE RISE OF the coffeetable play is either a bona fide sign that the theater is creatively widening its search for source material or proof of the bankruptcy of that search, depending on one's mood and point of view. In any case, the genre seems here to stay, thanks in part to Craig Marberry, whose book "Crowns," a lush guide to the pictorial pleasures of the church hats of African American women, became a major summertime hit for Arena Stage. Accordingly, "Cuttin' Up," Marberry's follow-up literary effort, also has found its way to the stage.
Subtitled "Wit and Wisdom From Black Barber Shops," the play owes its life to an 18-month fact-finding mission in which Marberry visited shops across the country, talking with barbers both famous (Vernon Winfrey, aka Oprah's father) and obscure (the District's own Bruce Simms, more on him later) and discovering that the barber shop was and remains home to a terrifically complex social network, a place of both solace and strife. In short, a whole world.
Playwright and director Charles Randolph-Wright had the unenviable task of creating a two-hours-and-change evening out of the almost embarrassingly rich amount of material Marberry produced. His decision? To set "Cuttin' Up" in a single D.C. shop, albeit one with cross-generational personnel and a constant parade of clients of various backgrounds and equally various clip requests. At the helm of this melange of eras and experiences is Howard (Ed Wheeler), the shop's avuncular owner, who has spent a lifetime assembling wise epithets from his perch behind the barber's chair. The principal and often reluctant recipients of this wisdom are Andre (Peter Jay Fernandez), whose restless nature means that he has cut hair from coast to coast, and Rudy (Psalmayene 24), a fun-loving junior barber with a pathological inability to get to work on time.
One of the pleasures of Randolph-Wright's script is the way it encourages -- indeed demands -- up-to-the-minute improvisation. On a given night, shop talk might be peppered with observations on Rosa Parks's legacy, debates on the implications of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court or meditations on Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, the latter of which leads to a stirring sequence on the military sacrifices made by black America throughout history.
Another pleasure is the Arena team's attention to detail, not only in the creation of Howard's barber shop (set by Shaun L. Motley) but in the physical business of cutting hair. For that, the "Cuttin' Up" team sought the help of Simms, who knows from hair, having spent the past 23 years clipping heads at the Expert Barber Shop in Southeast Washington. A photo of him appears in Marberry's book ("on page 22," he proudly announces).
"We went through the basics of barber procedure," says Simms, remembering that day in October when the whole cast came down to the shop for lessons and chit-chat. Special attention was given to the correct method of wielding scissors, as well as "how to properly drape the gown." Simms can barely suppress a laugh at the memory but refuses to single out cast members for ridicule. "We were intrigued and tickled" is his diplomatic response.
"African American men commune at the barber shop," writes Marberry in his preface to "Cuttin' Up." "It's where we go among ourselves, to be ourselves, to unmask." Simms avers that the author is dead-on in that regard and that hair-cutting, while not beside the point, is only one part of the shop's -- and the job's -- draw.
"Each head has a story to tell," Simms says. "I've met people from all different walks of life here. Some have traveled the world, and some are about to." And like the Simms-ulators at Arena, he says his greatest pleasure comes from the act of creation, of "having a man come in here and giving him something he's never had before."
Simms says he's excited to see how Arena has brought his little world to a wider world. He has already been impressed by the cast, especially by how quickly they learned the minutia of proper barbering. Still, you don't get the sense that his job is in any kind of jeopardy.
"They might be great actors," he laughs, "but they're terrible barbers."