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Miss Barbie Q and Skye Ellis in Comb Your Hair (Or You'll Look Like A Slave) at Arena Stage. (Photo by Doug Haverty)
Miss Barbie Q and Skye Ellis in Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like A Slave)<\I> at Arena Stage. (Photo by Doug Haverty)

Absence Makes The Heart…/Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like A Slave)

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Arena Stage
Through October 29

The two one-acts that make up this double bill come to us via the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Both plays are by Los Angeles writers, and both were finalists in the Center’s short play contest.

Absence Makes the Heart… — written by Sean Abley, and directed by Chrisanne Blankenship-Billings — is a modern take on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes, which deals with a dancer driven to her death by the uncontrollable urge to dance. But Ably gives it a contemporary twist by introducing plot elements which Anderson would be unlikely to recognize: drug addiction, bisexuality, and surrogate motherhood. The red ballet slippers are here transformed into red high-top sneakers, and the dancer perishes by throwing herself under a New York subway.

The piece takes the form of 20 different monologues, performed by 20 different actors depicting people whose lives were affected by the dead dancer: her choreographer (Marie-Francoise Theodore), her understudy (Francoise Tiadem), her boyfriend (Ian Salazar), her girlfriend (Andrea Nguyen), her drug-dealer (Ian Stanley), her priest (Keith Wheeler), and many others. The individual monologues are effective and well-written; they are performed well and Blankenship-Billings stages them efficiently. But the multitudinous points of view fracture the emotional unity, and reduce the story’s impact.

Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) — written by African-American playwright LeeLee Jackson and directed by Kumi James — deploys six black actors to examine issues important to black women. Like Absence Makes The Heart…, Jackson’s play is composed largely of monologues, though there are some full scenes in the mix. We see two little black girls (Miss Barbie Q and Shereen Macklin) who have been taught to believe that they must be beautiful if they hope to be loved. There’s a face-off between two women, one with straightened hair (Alexa Briana Crimson) and one with a “natural” (Carene Rose Mekertichyan) — but the only thing they can agree on is “We’re both still niggers.”

A woman who thinks she has found Mr. Right (Mimi Tempest) is destroyed when he rejects her for a more beautiful woman. Another woman (Skye Ellis) auditions for a role in which her character is brutally raped by a cop during a traffic stop. A third woman (Macklin) applies for a position as a sales rep, but when the interviewer discovers she is black, she’s only offered a job as a telephone operator. The performances are all excellent, and director James gives the play a brisk but nuanced production.


Sky Pilot Theatre Company and Theatre of Arts at Arena Stage, 1625 North La Palmas Avenue, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 29. Running time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.