If you were an acting student and looking for a master class in how to perform a solo show you couldn't do better than watching Tracy Michelle Hughes in "Pretty Fire". This autobiographic drama by Charlayne Woodard is beautifully written, deeply personal and dramatically compelling throughout. Beginning with the child's difficult, premature birth we are shown a series of defining moments in this young girl's life, leading us to the end of her childhood and describing exactly how she became the woman she became. There is a remarkable variety of experience, from the most ordinary events of family life to terrifying dangers on urban streets to the horrific disillusionment of her idyllic visits with her grandparents in the deep South. One of the deepest achievements of this writing is its ability to make these sometimes extreme events feel entirely natural, extraordinary at the same time that the young girl thinks of them as "that happened too". The other great achievement in the writing is that it appears so effortless at the same time that it's tightly constructed, elegant and colloquial, intimate and universal.
Certainly a good deal of that believability is the result of Hughes' masterful acting technique. From the moment she steps on stage we never have a sense that she's performing, simply that she's a woman telling us her own story. In the process of doing that she also populates her memories with everyone important in her life, and we do not see her imitating them, but simply embodying them in the same ways that her memories of them created the woman that she is now. I am trying to make a very subtle point about acting technique, that most often a solo performer creating a variety of other characters will ever so slightly exaggerate those characters so that we know she is being someone else. Ms. Hughes never does that. When she becomes a different person she simply becomes that person, and we know that she is not leaving herself, she is displaying, she is sharing, those people who enabled her to become herself. Certainly a fair bit of the credit for this achievement goes to director Nathan Jeffrey, and perhaps the greatest acknowledgement of his contribution is that it is, almost entirely, invisible. There is only one person on stage, just as it should be.
I don't want to relay much of the detail of this story for the simple reason that the discovery of those details is one of the biggest rewards of this drama. Suffice to say that we are taken on a journey that reinforces the importance of a good, loving family, the personal growth that comes with the discovery of cruelty and evil in the world, the brutality of racism and the wisdom that denies it all of its power, the recognition of individual identity and the pursuit of dreams greater than circumstance. That's a lot for a show with only one person on stage, but not too much when that person has all the confidence, generosity and skill of this woman.
This production is being performed in the beautiful new Isaac Studio performance space at Taproot Theatre and the staging could not be more simple or fundamental. The lighting by Roberta Russell is really the only technical element worth mentioning. Yet "Pretty Fire" is a fully populated, fully realized world and that is entirely the result of a writer, an actor and a director creating a complete theatrical experience, a complete life and a complete individual. This is a terrific show and one of the best solo performances I've ever seen.
PICTURED ABOVE: Tracy Michelle Hughes in Pretty Fire at Taproot Theatre
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug