'I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I have built my own factory,' says Delilah McAndrew, the protagonist of this play, first seen last year during Black History Month. In fact it is a quote from the self-styled Madame C,J. Walker, the child of recently freed slaves born in 1867 who went on to create products such as her 'Wonderful Hair Grower' and become the first African-American millionaire and a well-known philanthropist. She featured on a US postage stamp in 1998 and there is still a theatre, named after her, that she built as part of her company's premises in Indianapolis.
The play is essentially her story, retold through fictional characters. Actor-dancer turned playwright Theresa Roche has changed some of the family details but this is still the story of one of the first free-born Blacks of the American South following her from share-cropping poverty to a mansion outside New York, the image of the actual house among the projections used to mark some of the important moments of her career.
Orphaned when she is only seven, cotton-picking with a sister and two brothers they try to keep going on their dead parents' plot but can't meet the rent and go to live with cousins. Still barely a teenager, Delilah marries a man who beats her, divorces and marries a good man who is lynched and flees with her child to Denver where she takes in washing and meets a seller of hair preparations for Blacks - an early form of Avon Lady - and then starts making her own preparation which is cheaper and better. Another marriage to an advertising man sees her launched as a company and things grow from there.
Anti-black rioting in St Louis with many murdered sees her taking an anti-lynching petition to the White House, the founding of a training college for women and becoming a prominent figure who is a role model for all women, let alone blacks, in achieving 'The American Dream.' That dream in this case seems to become very rich but not trampling people on the way, but it is one that puts business before marriage and involves some lengthy chats with God, with church membership helping to create sales in the early days.
In trying to pack a whole life in one play it become episodic, inevitably perhaps, and none of the situations or relationships are really explored, but it is an amazing story with some surprises. How was possible for a poor black to get a divorce in the mid nineteenth century - weren't there any legal costs? And that a snazzy lady in colourful red and black twirling a parasol, who I at first took to be a tart, turned out to be a pillar of the local church - but then I'm no expert on Southern fashions!
There is a large and energised cast with some very good performances, especially Isaura Barbe-Brown and Aja Huston as the young and older Delilah and Rubin Moyo arming as Amos the husband who is lynched. There are one or two characters a little indistinct or too crudely drawn but Saima Duhares production keeps things moving quickly with scenes flowing on rapidly from each other. The setting works well in facilitating this but it often looks cluttered and is too dominated by a screen hung with a photograph of sharecroppers which stays through the first act, whatever the location, and of Denver for the second, even though we may be in New York or Washington. I cant help feeling the budget just didnt run to what the designer intended.
There is so much material here that could be explored in other plays. For starters, the relationships between the cousins and ex-slaves trying to create new lives at the time of Reconstruction, the relationship between Delilah/C.J, and her husband and the pressures of marriage and business in this context. We see, in both the writing and performance, the change that has been brought about in Delilah by Amos's lynching but we never see its process. Instead we get a chronicle that is meant to be inspirational and, if you think becoming a millionaire is what life is about, it probably succeeds and along the way encourages you to be churchgoing and avoid skin whiteners - though one could regret that, presumably reflecting Walker's time, her products seemed to be promoting hair straightening as much as keeping hair healthy!
Ends 20th February 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton