Review: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” (Pegasus Theatre Chicago)

debrah neal, Toni Lynice Fountain, Sandra Watson, and Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

Show: “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery”

Company: Pegasus Theatre Chicago

Venue: Chicago Dramatists (1105 W Chicago Ave)

There is only one way for the women of Shay Youngblood’s “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” to overcome their suffering, and that is through song. Music grants peace in that it solidifies their community, as much as it expresses their pain. Life lessons in this Pegasus production are doled out through music, making them all the more memorable for the characters and the audience.

The unnamed figure at the center of these women is known only as Daughter (Melanie Loren), and she recounts her life growing up with a variety of caretakers who all qualify as mothers to her in one way or another. Big Mama (Felisha McNeal) is her grandmother, and she looks after the girl’s daily bread, and comforts her when she laments the lost presence of her biological mother (Nichole Green in the performance I saw), who has retreated North for work. Aunt Mae (Stacie Doublin) and Miss Corine (debrah neal) weave prophecies and pinch snuff. Miss LaMama (Toni Lynice Fountain) tells our heroine stories in the tradition of African narratives. Together, these ladies prepare Daughter for womanhood, with all its trials and triumphs explained beforehand.

Director Ilesa Duncan has built a strong ensemble for this memory piece. The women age and de-age, depending on the stories and wisdom they impart to their young charge, and this reviewer could feel the history of shared lives vibrating between them at every moment. Such connection is vital, as Youngblood’s script moves in and out of the memories of multiple characters, while the main story is being shared by Loren as a flashback itself. Duncan uses the small space at Chicago Dramatists well, delineating which moments are present or past through blocking and characters’ physical choices. The emotional arc never gets away from the director, as she links all the stories Loren is told to present moments of remembrance.

Takesha Meshé Kizart, Stacie Doublin, Toni Lynice Fountain, debrah neal, Felisha ‘Ekudayo’ McNeal, Melanie Loren, and Sandra Watson/Photo: Emily Schwartz.

The actresses acquit themselves well with their varied roles. Loren is particularly impressive as she ages down to play a pre-teen, while Green excels at playing multiple women at multiple ages, each with her own strong sense of self. Sandra Watson stands out as an older woman with mystical sight, and as a lesbian sharing lessons about love with Loren. And McNeal commands the stage as a no-nonsense woman with many people to care for. The rivalry between Doublin and Fountain is entertaining and heartfelt, with a conclusion that satisfies both women and the audience.

Music director Shawn Wallace has a real gift in this cast. These women sing a capella for the majority of the show, performing the ghostly rhythms of memory as easily as they harmonize for gospel music. The balance of voices, each powerful in distinct ways, reinforces the theme at the center of the production: that each woman has something special to pass on to her charge, and each will give wisdom in her own unique way. This pattern is reinforced by Kirstin Johnson’s elegiac sound design, and cemented by choreographer Nicole Clark Springer (of the Duncan-directed “Rutherford’s Travels” last year) in the final moments of the play, where Loren moves from woman to woman, and mirrors their dances, and picks up their rhythms, suggesting she will carry them with her always.

“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” delivers on its title. Youngblood’s script, combined with Duncan’s well-crafted moments, and through diligent work from the performers, shines in a winning production that has the audience humming long after the lights have gone down.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women form a community through song in this lovely show.

DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”