African-American women know their hair can be a powerful signifier—both in the postmodern sense and the more down-home meaning of the term. I Love My Hair When It's Good: And Then Again When It Looks Defiant and Impressive, Chaunesti Webb's impressive premiere as a playwright and director at Manbites Dog Theater, effectively probes both dimensions as it leads us through the lives of its two central characters, Genevieve and Moni, both of whom are growing up in a small Southern town in the 1960s.
Almost eerily similar in some ways to Athol Fugard's Blood Knot (whose strong StreetSigns production is still running at the ArtsCenter), I Love My Hair tells the story of two close cousins whose life experiences will become increasingly separated over time.
Economics, domestic violence and education will all play a part in this. But the largest agents will include a double bind hardly limited to African-American families of a recent era in the South, in which the young are expected to make their family and community proud, but still not "get above their raising." Webb's characters are also subject to generation-spanning—but still dysfunctional—gender roles in which a woman's worth is measured mostly by her self-sacrifice, if not her outright martyrdom.
But in the strongest connection to the Fugard text, these two girls ultimately stand on different sides of a color line—not the black/ white third rail of South Africa in 1961, but what's been lately termed the pigmentocracy of intra-racial prejudice in the African-American community, a cultural preference for lighter skin tones over darker ones.
Would that such issues were limited to our country's troubled racial history. But at last count, skin bleaching creams constituted a $45 billion dollar industry. Just last week, the Food and Drug Administration was forced to ban 35 skin-lightening or bleaching products because consumers were being hospitalized after being exposed to the high levels of mercury in them.
But in Webb's play, the word pigmentocracy had added resonance with the extreme beauty and grooming practices required to make African-American hair look and act like that of white women. There is piquancy and poignance in Moni and Genevieve's vivid early memories of Saturday morning hair sessions with a grandmother and aunt. In Webb's deeply evocative writing, the "smell of Tussy and Tareytons" contrasts with the honeysuckle vines that grow beside the porch.
But the momentary agonies of chemical treatments, curlers and hot combs—"why I don't have fully formed earlobes," Genevieve claims—are exponentially surpassed by an underlying understanding that lasts for years, if not a lifetime: that a body part must be burned, physically or chemically subdued and thwarted from its natural tendencies if its owner is to look beautiful.
With the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, much changes. In Aunt Brenda's "militant phase," her family regards her Afro hairstyle, by itself, as "violent, militant and separatist." (Indeed, in a 1972 interview photo included in the preshow montage, the eyes of Angela Davis seem to disappear into a veritable thundercloud.)
Aurelia Belfield's endearing Genevieve seems in a permanently breathless state of exasperation as a child coming to grips with the absurdities of the world around her. Lakeisha Coffey ably explores realms that are even more spiritually caustic as her cousin, Moni. Surrounding both, Hazel Edmond and Sherida McMullan provide solid support as their aunts, Sandra and Evonne, while Yolanda Rabun anchors the dual roles of Grandma and Aunt Brenda.
On opening night, an audience mostly composed of African-American women provided ongoing, vocal authentication of a host of details from the smallest (including various vegetables and grocery items enlisted to subdue unruly hair) to the largest (in a spontaneous responsive reading of a verse from the Book of Proverbs).
As we watched, Webb's meticulously researched and remembered script gently and honestly traced along a series of carefully selected fault lines within African-American history and culture. At the same time, I Love My Hair lovingly embraced, validated and, ultimately, united in a new understanding of the life experiences of a community long divided. The scope of that achievement, and the art that ably undertakes it, richly deserves our highest praise.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hair raising."