As with "Crowns," its theatrical cousin, "Cuttin' Up" tries to get inside black America's head through a portrait of what sits on top of it. Born at a theater in Princeton, N.J., and later a mega-hit for Arena Stage, "Crowns" dealt with African American women and their love affair with hats. "Cuttin' Up," in a world premiere at Arena, takes on African American men and the bonds they forge in the comfort of a barber chair.
The new play, written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and based, like "Crowns," on a book of interviews by Craig Marberry, offers up a congenial if unfocused survey of the folkways of the barbershop. Though seasoned with some lively vignettes and incidental characters sporting braids, Afros and dreadlocks, the play remains only a mild diversion, never quite drilling to the core of what might have been a very rich vein.
It's an oddly scattered evening, seguing awkwardly between the story of the troubled marriage of a barber played by Peter Jay Fernandez, and anecdotes about the ways in which black American culture and history waft in and out the barbershop doors. Some of these interludes are brought warmly to life by a supporting cast that includes Marc Damon Johnson, Carl Cofield, Duane Boutte and, in all the female roles, the terrific Marva Hicks. But the play that unfolds around them still feels roughed out. Like the do's of the shop's clientele, it could stand more shape and a bit of a trim.
Running nearly 21/2 hours, the production repeatedly asserts that the barbershop holds a special status in African American life. "The barbershop is the final black frontier," one of the haircutters declares. "Clothes don't make the man," he says at another point, "the barber makes the man." In "Cuttin' Up," you are asked to accept these observations largely on the authority of wise old Howard (the sturdy Ed Wheeler), proprietor of the Washington tonsorial parlor in which the action takes place. The play, though, skimps on the meat. While "Crowns" made the case for how fancy hats could come to be declarations of individuality and self-expression, "Cuttin' Up" never quite imbues the barbershop with this kind of significance.
It does succeed, however, in showing us the easy camaraderie between haircutters and customers in one of these urban temples of the clipper and comb. The Kreeger stage has been smartly transformed by set designer Shaun L. Motley into a typically homey shop, down to the black-and-white checkered floor and black-and-chrome barber chairs. To the good-natured ribbing and occasional lectures that the denizens of the shop subject each other to, the director-adapter drops in snippets of conversation out of the day's news. References crop up to Hurricane Katrina and the Philadelphia Eagles' recent suspension of star receiver Terrell Owens.
Randolph-Wright's adaptation takes the first-person accounts in Marberry's book "Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom From Black Barber Shops," and threads them into the slice-of-life events in the shop, where Howard employs two other barbers: Fernandez's Andre, in his mid-forties, and twenty-something Rudy, played by Psalmayene 24. The ages are significant, because the barbers are meant to embody all sorts of generational conflict and cultural misunderstanding. Rudy, for example, is perennially late, and his slacker habits give Howard a chance to condemn young people as lacking initiative and being sheep-like in their surrender to trendiness.
"You're the 'echo generation,' " Howard tells Rudy. "You don't think for yourselves. You echo." The conflicts also give Howard a chance to expound on the civil rights movement and other facets of African American history. Meanwhile, Andre, a nomadic type who has wandered the country, discarding wives almost as often as he has changed barber jobs, reminisces about the places he's lived and the raucous characters to which a barber's life has exposed him.
Though the director admirably resists any impulse to turn these men into stock comic characters, and the actors themselves deliver nicely understated work, they still feel like mere intermediaries, meant to introduce us to an endless parade of other, minor, figures. Among these are Vernon Winfrey, Oprah's real-life dad, a Nashville barber who was featured in Marberry's book. They materialize fleetingly, to add a flavor here or there. As played by Bill Grimmette, Vernon is a bit of a rascal and braggart, reporting that Oprah told him that had it not been for his strict, disciplinarian ways, "she'd be in public housing with a bunch of babies."
"Cuttin' Up" also depicts a gallery of customers, many of them cleverly outfitted by costume designer Emilio Sosa, who've come to Howard's shop over the years. Eventually all the people and all the intermingling themes start to feel cluttered. (The saga of Andre's broken marriage to a singer, Karen, is supposed to supply the evening with dramatic tension -- and an excuse for some music -- but it's never clear why this is the only subplot Randolph-Wright develops.) Some episodes retain bite and wit: A pair of preachers in for their weekly appointments, one building a fancy new church, amusingly spotlight the community's religious rivalries. And the play does has fun with the lengths men go to in pursuit of the perfect coif. "Tight braids," someone observes, "are the poor man's facelift."
But "Cuttin' Up" never decides what story it most urgently wants to tell. For the answer to that, a theatergoer will have to take a number.
Cuttin' Up, written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Adapted from the book by Craig Marberry. Set by Shaun L. Motley; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; hair and wigs, Jon Aitchison. With Duane Boutte, Carl Cofield, Bill Grimmette, Marc Damon Johnson. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Jan. 1 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.