Neat by Charlayne Woodard
Kandace Crystal’s performance in Charlayne Woodard’s memoir play feels a little bit like your favorite middle school English teacher reading you one of those spiky, frank Young Adult classics that is also somehow suffused with a deep sweetness and regard for youthful innocence — except, of course, she doesn’t just read it, or even just do the voices of four generations of black women hailing from Georgia and settling in upstate New York. She also moves — all over the bare stage, occasionally backed by a primitive projection and often joined by her silent, sinuous storytelling aide Nicole Diaz-Pellot, confident that her movements through the world she is describing will make the audience see.
The image of the favorite teacher comes to mind because throughout, Crystal seems to be enjoying herself, delighting in her task, even as she relates a story that is tinged with tragedy and sometimes bluntly awful. The title character is her aunt, brain damaged as a baby, in part because the nearest hospital in 1943 Georgia would not treat a colored child. When Woodard is young, Neat is a charmingly overgrown playmate who sometimes has fits and believes that one day, she will fly. When Woodard is a teen, Neat is an embarrassing relation whose hair and manners strike too close to home. But she is also possessed of the wisdom of the simple: when Woodard tells her about her Jewish friends’ history, she asks, “Who my people is?” and that starts the girl on a quest for knowledge that ultimately ends in an ugly political battle. So it goes: Neat’s adventures and misadventures serving as a touchstone for Woodard’s own.
There is a definite ending, but this is the story of a beginning, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age, full of gritty particularity.