The sins are different and the setting is 500 years removed, but at its heart, Thiz Girlz Lyfe is a morality play, presenting a lesson about good character and conduct. The new semi-autobiographical work by Clevelander Ernesta Jefferson traces the journey of Nasheema, a young African-American wife and mother who struggles to surmount the challenges of drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse and find a better life.
Earlier versions of Lyfe were performed in 2015 at Garden Valley Neighborhood House in Cleveland, and in 2016 at Kultivation Theater in Cleveland Heights. The current version debuted after further intensive development in Playwrights Local's theatrical incubator, Play Lab. Set in present-day Cleveland, the two-and-a-half-hour piece is being performed now through May 18 in the small, black-box theater at Creative Space at Waterloo Arts.
By providing us with the opportunity to experience diverse voices — i.e., voices that don't necessarily belong to straight white men — Playwrights Local delivers an invaluable service to the community. For this particular work, they have partnered with famed Cleveland director Terrence Spivey, formerly of Karamu House, who now helms Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble. In previous interviews Spivey has said the goal of his company is to embrace issues that speak to the black community.
Certainly, Thiz Girlz Lyfe falls within that embrace, its accessibility only broadened by Jefferson's solid dialog and sharp sense of humor. Even in the darkest scenes, the playwright usually manages to work in at least one sly exchange, creating a vaguely irreverent mood which director Spivey maintains, drawing strong, yet often funny, performances from his cast.
When we first meet Nasheema (Lorrainna Worthern), she's coming home from her shift at the strip club, where she performs under the stage name Nasty. Her hulking, unemployed husband Will (a deliciously menacing Michael L. May) sits staring into the TV, mouthing the lines to a sit-com, in a room littered with beer bottles and red plastic Solo cups. The abusive dynamic between the two is quickly established, a fact of life that is emphasized in the next scene, set in the dressing room of the dance club, where Nasheema's co-worker Angel (Nyrie Stallworth) gets on her case for sticking with a man who regularly blackens her eyes. The stress takes its toll on Nasheema's routine, which draws the ire of club owner Rich (a highly engaging Sean Dubois Day), who wonders aloud whether Nasheema has become "allergic to rhythm," and threatens to fire her if she doesn't get back in the game.
Back home, Nasheema finds Will drunk and itching for a fight, goading her with derogatory comments about her work as an exotic dancer. ("I'm not saying you a ho. You got ho-like qualities," he tells her.) As things escalate, the couple's adolescent daughter Quita (Samone L. Cummings) calls the cops. But with Will begging her to remain silent, Nasheema denies the abuse to the sympathetic officer (also played by Sean Dubois Day). So later, when another dancer, Sandy (a finely tuned Arien Hodges), offers Nasheema some crack, it doesn't take long for her ethical restraints to crumble beneath the onslaught of despair, and her downward slide begins. Fueled by drug-induced mania, on her return home Nasheema manages to beat the crap out of Will with a beer bottle before hosting a riotous dance party for her friends (also played by Stallworth and Hodges) that features a madcap array of twerking, booty slapping and hallucinating.
In the aftermath, Nasheema is passed out on the couch when Social Services — who else? — comes to call. It turns out, someone has called the agency to complain that Quita is being neglected. (Spoiler alert: It's Nasheema's mom, warmly portrayed by a maternal Irma R. McQueen.) With the morality-play perfect name of Ms. Getwright (Rochelle Jones), the straitlaced social worker takes considerable abuse from Nasheema, who has lost her wig while thrashing around on the couch. In a clever piece of stagecraft, Ms. Getwright hands Nasheema her wig while simultaneously promising to "get out of your hair" if Nasheema will only consider rehab.
Among the eight-actor cast, May, Day and Hodges are especially notable for the well-rounded characters they deliver. The role of Nasheema, however, is a challenging one: The actor is on stage nearly every minute of the 150-minute run time, and often engaged in physical feats ranging from exotic dancing to giving and receiving beatings. That said, Worthern's performance, while highly energetic, lacked much nuance or emotional subtlety — terrified, angry, or high, all looked pretty much the same.
Act 2 opens with a sober Nasheema seated on her sofa with a laptop. Rather than beer bottles, the only clutter comes in the form of a bottle of sparkling water. And when a very strung-out Sandy appears at the door, we learn Nasheema has been clean for a year.
Sadly, salvation is rarely as much fun as sin, and the second act, which finds Nasheema successfully resisting a relapse with the help of her sponsor and coming to grips with her complex relationship with Will, feels slow paced, a little preachy, and not entirely convincing. In fact, when Nasheema and Will apparently reunite at the play's conclusion, a voice at the back of the audience seemingly spoke for many when it cried out, "Oh, no!"
Nonetheless, the fact that diverse voices are being heard on Cleveland stages is something to celebrate. As an intimate portrait of a black, female Clevelander, Thiz Girlz Lyfe deserves the continued support of the community.