Powerful performances bring difficult realities to life in Birdie Blue

Review of Birdie Blue by Jennifer K., 17

Birdie Blue packs for a trip, and, as many travelers do, she becomes nostalgic. Throughout this 90-minute play, Birdie recalls events and characters that have touched her, and the audience is swept up into the turbulence of her past.

Birdie Blue, put on by Seattle Repertory Theater, is directed by Chuck Smith and written by Cheryl L. West. West is a noted playwright who often deals with controversial themes in her work. Birdie Blue describes the civil rights movement and its aftermath. It also speaks of a more subtle, but no less painful topic: caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Velma Austin plays Birdie, a gritty, middle-aged woman with a powerful history. William Hall, Jr. plays Jackson, Birdie’s husband who has Alzheimer’s. Sean Blake plays all the other characters, including Bam, Birdie’s son, Sook, her brother, and Minerva, her older sister. The performances by these actors are what make this play remarkable.

Velma Austin as Birdie in Birdie Blue. Photo by Chris Bennion.

First of all, from the moment she steps onstage, Austin (Birdie) has the audience wrapped around her finger. She is warm and caring, but fiery and strong; she has a sense of humor, a sometimes misbehaving mouth, and a twinkle in her eye. The audience believes her implicitly; indeed, it is impossible not to. She is incredibly genuine. Throughout the play, she grows softer, more caring, and less tempestuous, but she retains a determination that will not falter.

Also, Hall (Jackson) gives an outstanding performance as a man in different stages of a degenerative disease. He is so candid that he is almost painful to watch, especially if you have known someone with Alzheimer’s.

Finally, Blake’s characters range from an adorable toddler, to a rebellious teen, to a middle-aged woman. He plays all of them well, with an easy humor. His acting brings a refreshing lightness to contrast the other two characters’ more serious roles.

Throughout the play, scenes jump back and forth between different decades. In some places, this is a bit confusing, especially at the beginning, when all the characters are new. As the play goes on, however, it becomes easier to follow. Everything from costumes to radio clips gives the audience clues as to which time period they are watching. For instance, afro wigs and bell-bottom jeans mean the 70s. The radio clips are especially effective. Music from the different decades plays as Birdie and her friends dance, sing, or listen. Snippets of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches ring out as Birdie hangs on every word. Indeed, King’s remarks often parallel events in Birdie’s life. On the whole, the play does justice to a complex arrangement of scenes from an equally complex time of history.

Teens who see Birdie Blue may dislike it at first. Jackson’s illness is difficult to watch. But as the play progresses, flashbacks showing who Jackson used to be draw out viewers’ pity. They understand that he once was a person with charm, joy, and a sense of humor. Now, they can see him as Birdie does, through compassionate eyes.

Conservative playgoers may object to some of the content. There is enough language to earn a PG-13 rating, and it deals with some controversial subject matter. Honestly, teens without much experience with mature plays may want to think twice about seeing Birdie Blue. Personally, I was unpleasantly surprised with the ending and with some of the content.

Overall, Birdie Blue is a moving play that gives a vivid picture of African-American life during and after the civil rights movement. It also portrays the pain and tenderness gained from caring for a loved one with a disease like Alzheimer’s. The characters are charmingly, and sometimes painfully, realistic. It is a powerful drama with enough humor to make it pleasant, but with deep, dark themes that may disappoint some viewers. Theatergoers who enjoy this genre, however, will adore Birdie Blue.

Jennifer K.
November 20th, 2007

Birdie Blue
Through December 16th
Seattle Repertory Theatre

More info and show times: http://www.seattlerep.org/
Seattle Rep’s Ticket Office: 206-443-2222
Ticket Office Hours: Daily, noon – performance time

Seattle Rep is located at 155 Mercer Street, on the North edge of Seattle Center. It is served by buses 1,2,3,4,13,15,16,18,45, 74 and 85. For bus times:

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