The Other Cinderella | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Other Cinderella 

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Black Ensemble

The story of Cinderella is full of issues relevant to small children--sibling rivalry, maternal indifference, unrecognized virtue. Fairy tales are so rich in images and associations that they can hold the attention of adults as well as children, and it's not surprising that Jackie Taylor, the artistic director of the Black Ensemble, decided to adapt "Cinderella" for adults.

What is surprising about The Other Cinderella is how little she has done with the story. Instead of twisting it to reflect contemporary concerns, she remains doggedly faithful to the children's story. There are a few forgettable songs, most of them written by Michael Ward and Herman Wheatley, and a couple of bawdy moments, but nothing puts the fairy tale into a new perspective.

It seems that if you're going to go to the trouble to stage something as familiar as "Cinderella," it might be a good idea to have it be about something. Simply doing the story with a contemporary setting is facile and inane. The story is updated and cast with all black actors, but the few plot changes that Taylor created are arbitrary and pointless. The play begins, for example, with one of the fellows from the neighborhood winning a lottery to become a page to the king. Later, his friends accuse him of getting uppity and neglecting his friends, but he assures them he won't forget them. That's sweet of him, but so what?

The alterations that Taylor makes in the characters are just as meaningless. The wicked stepmother, or "Stepmomma," as she's known in this version, is a letter carrier, played by Taylor's sister, Gussie Ross, who played the role in the original 1976 production of this play. The wicked stepsisters (Sharon Dyan Davis and Maggie English) are lazy layabouts who have never worked a day in their lives. The prince (Adrian Miguel Goodum) shows no interest in women and prefers the company of the duke's son; this implies this might be a fairy tale of a different sort, but in a solo number, the king insists that the problem "ain't nothing a little lovin' won't cure," and incredibly enough, that turns out to be the case. When the prince lays eyes on Cinderella at the ball, he becomes a rip-snortin' heterosexual, and allays his father's worries about the royal succession.

The only character that shows even a hint of ingenuity is the Fairygodmomma, played by Reginah Walton. She speaks with a Caribbean accent, dresses in bright carnival colors, and sings reggae style. Her magic is obviously a manifestation of voodoo, and she even says funny things. After warning Cinderella to be home by 11:45, she turns to the audience and says, "I would have told her 12 o'clock, but you know how we are." The line got the biggest laugh of the night from the predominantly black audience.

But the Fairygodmomma is not enough to save the show. If any character could do that, it would be Cinderella herself, but the role is hopelessly underwritten, and the actress, Kellee Wilson-Pettus, underplays the little she has to work with. Wearing a housecoat and a turban, she putters around with a dustcloth until Fairygodmomma arrives and arranges for her to be taken to the ball in a stretch limo "driven by Billy Dee Williams." Then she attends the ball, unrecognized by her stepmother and stepsisters, and inspires the prince's undying love--just like the fairy tale!

The Other Cinderella is nothing more than a simplistic rehash of the children's story, and the performers certainly don't salvage the material. Most either overact or ham it up, giving the show the look of a high school production. Why adults would want to see this is a puzzle to me, but on a recent hot, humid Saturday night, the theater, which has neither air conditioning nor fans, was packed--which is more amazing than anything in Mother Goose.


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