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THEATER REVIEW

'Homegirl': A Fresh Look at Race, Color

February 16, 1996|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't be misled by the title "Homegirl." This is no female 'hood play. Though the title character lives in Harlem, she went to private schools and speaks French to her 7-year-old.

Roanetta (Yvonne Farrow) never thought of herself as a homegirl. Yet here she is--a single mother who resorted to welfare. Her ex-lover is only now beginning to contribute child support payments. What went wrong?

Playwright-director Yvette Heyliger probes the answer to that question and others in this fresh and vivid comedy at Hollywood Court Theatre. Although it has a few loose ends, "Homegirl" connects the political to the personal, American history to Roanetta's story, with a light touch and a warm heart.

Set in 1983, the play opens on the night Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America. Roanetta and her daughter Belinda (delightful Leah Smith) weren't watching the big event on TV, but neighbor Johnnie Mae (Dee Freeman) calls with the news. Roanetta is thrilled, but Johnnie Mae--who is darker-skinned than Roanetta--claims that "the black Barbie doll" won the pageant because she's light-skinned. Roanetta takes this comment personally, and the evening erupts into an argument over who is or isn't a "real" black woman.

The next day, Belinda's daddy, Craig (Stogie Kenyatta), shows up for a scheduled picnic with the girl--the first time he has seen her in years. Roanetta's hope for a possible reconciliation is dashed, however, when she opens the door to discover that Craig has brought along his girlfriend Barbara (Freddie Simpson), who is white.

*

The play's realistic narrative is interrupted several times with fantasy scenes in which Roanetta investigates her attitudes about color and race. She relives the moment when a white man (Randall England) who liked her regretted that she wasn't a blond, and later when she told all to a therapist (also England) who prescribed a pill. England later appears in an outfit from 1712, advising fellow plantation owners how to divide and control their slaves.

In Roanetta's funniest fantasies, she revives her childhood dolls Barbie (Simpson), Ken (England) and Julia (Farrow) to see how they influenced her. They're key players in a liberating ritual at the end, though a coda involving Barbie is unnecessary and excessive.

Two problems: With Belinda in school, wouldn't someone as educated (and as poor) as Roanetta look for a job? Yet there's no mention of how work--or lack of it--affects her self-image. Also, Johnnie Mae disappears for most of the play, then returns for a disproportionately long monologue.

Freeman, though well cast, rushes some of Johnnie Mae's lines, as if she suspects that the audience might be impatient with her when the play is so focused on Roanetta. And it's true--Farrow does involve us in Roanetta's plight from word one. She's well supported by Kenyatta and Simpson but most of all by Heyliger's distinctive voice.

* "Homegirl," Hollywood Court Theatre, 6817 Franklin Ave., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 25. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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