Extended Family Values

Charlayne Woodard mentors at-risk youth in her one-woman show.

The Night Watcher is more a loosely connected series of parables on contemporary black family values than a play, and its sole performer, Charlayne Woodard, is more raconteur than actress. That said, Woodard does possess a keen instinct for what's dramatic, and director Daniel Sullivan has learned from their three previous collaborations how to showcase her to maximum effect. Woodard delves into a trove of family stories to show that you don't need to bear children to become a pivotal figure in their lives. The Night Watcher looks in on an assortment of unwedded and molested teens, lost souls, and brats, and in each case, it's the personal intervention of Auntie Charlayne that makes the unmistakable difference at a critical time. As much as she does for the struggling kids in her extended family, they are just as responsible for awakening her nascent compassion. Is The Night Watcher a noble attempt to impart or reinforce the virtues of lending a hand? Yes. Is it overlong and self-indulgent? Absolutely. Part of the difficulty here is that the show has a thematic unity but a loose chronology. Woodard starts as a spoiled and selfish young adult focused on her marriage, her career, and picking out the perfect ski jacket for her Maltese terrier. But by focusing so much on the young people, the show becomes about them, and when their stories are concluded, we're back to square one in trying to get a handle on what it all means to Woodard. There are some obvious conclusions, among them that there's no substitute for hands-on help. It can be easier to walk a picket line for three hours to protect Roe v. Wade than to take a sexually active niece to her Planned Parenthood appointment. Woodard skitters across the boundaries between performance artist, storyteller, and actress. She's blessed with a body that can metamorphose from sandbox kiddie to statuesque model, and her voice is a marvel of expression, with an encyclopedic command of black dialects. Brief forays into soul music (Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" and the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day," for example) make you long for more. Despite the fact that there are too many illustrations of the same point (it'd be easy to cut 20 minutes of the show), each of Woodard's tales moves along briskly, and Sullivan encourages her to use the entire stage at the Leo K. Theatre (conceived before he retired as the Rep's artistic director in 1997) to her best advantage. Designer Tom Lynch employs a brilliant Venetian-blind concept that allows rear slide projections to help Woodard establish both place and mood. As a showcase for a master storyteller at the top of her craft, the show (now in its final weekend at the Rep) is an unqualified success. As a linear drama, not so much. Whether the show works for you depends on your ability to enjoy one while dismissing the other. Or as Sly would put it: "Different strokes for different folks."

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