Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs
Presented by and at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52 St., NYC, Nov. 13-Dec. 17.
Solo performance as personal exercise and as a commercially transferable art form are both on the line in "The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman," written and performed by Stephanie Berry. In many ways, Berry's work is unique. Not only is she is a kinetic and memorable performer, but her story of an African-American woman's "journey through life in 20th Century America" tilts toward an audience not usually well represented on the stage.
For that reason alone, the show may be a good candidate for an Off-Broadway run down the road. For now, Berry should refine her work, focus her message, and keep giving the powerful, funny performance that she's giving. Comparisons to Whoopi Goldberg's solo show of many years ago may well be tempting, but Berry's view, like Shaneequa's, demands to be taken on its own terms.
Directed with obvious care by Talvin Wilks (atop Evan Alexander's white, streamlined New York setting), Berry's work is blessed with a pumping, street-talkin' lyricism and an intense performance style as close to electroshock as you're likely to see in a piece at this stage of its development.
As Shaneequa tells her story, shifting back and forth across time—from ancient memories of Africa to Harlem basement parties and beyond—you have to sometimes look a little deeper within yourself to find the universal in Shaneequa's story.
By far the most affecting and compelling segment of the intermissionless piece is the tale of the Harlem basement party. Here, few can touch Berry as a young woman both chastened and emboldened by the awkwardness of teenage hormones, and the need to find physical and emotional love. Color here plays no more than a supporting role. We finally see the Shaneequa in ourselves, and thereby identify with her most completely.