The Legend of Billy Jean

Cinderella gets sassy in Karamu's Black Girl.

Billy Jean is the titular character in Black Girl, J.E. Franklin's ghetto take on Cinderella. But unlike her fairy-tale counterpart, Billy Jean's aspirations lie not in the happily-ever-after fantasy of bagging her own prince, but in the far more true-to-life dream of escape -- escape from the naysaying family, the impoverished neighborhood, and the societal pressures that keep her down. While Billy Jean's most far-flung dream is the everygirl fantasy of becoming a ballet dancer, the circumstances of her life make such a goal seem about as impossible as transforming that mythical gourd into a horsedrawn carriage.

But as we watch Billy Jean practice her moves in the (near) privacy of her room -- she lives in an overcrowded boarding house, rife with interruptions from members of her "extended family," including two deadbeat stepsisters and her grandmother's leering, drop-in gentleman friend -- we know that the rapture she feels when dancing is that of a girl who's finally found her groove. There are many barriers in Billy Jean's path, including her own lack of interest in graduating from high school, but her Mama Rosie is the primary obstacle. Although not a stepmother, Mama is most definitely wicked, a woman who is emotionally abusive to her own daughters while lavishing affection on a female boarder who shows more ambition.

Gwen Wright is frighteningly effective as Rosie, bringing to life a character that one audience member was moved to label "one bad mama-jama." Not quite as strong is the representation of Mu'Dear, the grandmother who trumps Rosie to ultimately come to Billie Jean's emotional aid, offering her the love and encouragement she craves. Playwright Franklin has set Mu'Dear and Mama Rosie against each other in a battle of titan matriarchs, but Eva Withers-Evans's Mu'Dear doesn't quite match up to Wright's ruthless Rosie. Withers-Evans does get the job done, but in more of a deus ex machina fairy godmother way, rather than matching Rosie in brute force.

Crystle Paynther turns in a smart and artful performance as Billy Jean, portraying her not as a woman-child victim, but as a clear-thinking player who attempts to work the people and events in her life toward her own ends. Angelique Seals as Norma and Calista Cottingham as Ruth Ann provide comic relief as the bitchy knocked-up stepsisters.

Jean E. Hawkins has provided taut staging for this slice-of-life piece; Black Girl clearly bears the mark of a director who's mastered her craft and sympathizes with her subject matter. Hawkins, Franklin, and Wright most effectively bring their talents together in the play's elegant and unsentimental ending, a powerful moment that finally provides insight into the motives of a pitiful yet very human and heartbroken bully.

Franklin's play was written in the early '70s, and the design elements in Karamu's production almost take us back to that era of inflation, unemployment, macramé, and mood rings. So the appearance of a CD player and spring-water bottles are either garden-variety anachronisms or small touchstones meant to provide audiences with a contemporary link to the story. Either way, these minor distractions are easily overlooked, since the show's energy provides a potent evening of resonant family drama.