‘Neat’ launches Actor Express' new digital series

"Neat," a one-woman show featuring Charity Purvis Jordan, is the inaugural production in Actor's Express' new Virtual Downstage series.
Courtesy of Actor's Express
"Neat," a one-woman show featuring Charity Purvis Jordan, is the inaugural production in Actor's Express' new Virtual Downstage series. Courtesy of Actor's Express

Express’ Virtual Downstage is the latest addition to the list of digital options for local theater.

To a growing list of digital offerings that already includes Aurora’s Our Stage Onscreen series (“2 the Left”) and Synchronicity’s In the Theater/On the Screen (“4x4”), we can now add Actor’s Express and its new Virtual Downstage program, which debuts with a streaming production of “Neat,” a one-woman play by nationally recognized actress Charlayne Woodard about the aunt who inspired her as a young girl coming of age.

Although the inherently theatrical and intimately autobiographical nature of the piece is somewhat compromised in a prerecorded format — and performed by an unrelated actress who might as well be portraying a fictional character named “Charlayne Woodard” — that’s no reason to fault Charity Purvis Jordan (from Synchronicity’s excellent “Eclipsed” a few years ago), who nonetheless acquits herself respectfully.

As directed by Eric J. Little (who helmed the Express' last live, pre-COVID production of “The Brothers Size” in March), each of the 10 monologues in Woodard’s show is introduced with a title card that replicates pages and old snapshots from her family photo album.

"Neat" director Eric J. Little.
Courtesy of Actor's Express
"Neat" director Eric J. Little. Courtesy of Actor's Express

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The first of them, “Poison,” recounts the birth of her beloved Aunt Beneatha (later nicknamed Neat) in 1943 Savannah, and the accidental poisoning that left her brain-damaged as an infant — partly a result of the extra time it took to get her to a segregated hospital on the other side of town. “Spell” addresses Woodard’s own upbringing in New York, and the summers she and her sister spent with relatives in Georgia, especially their favorite Aunt Neat.

In “The Promise,” Neat moves to New York, too, arriving as a disheveled adult who “looked country,” and “Snow” describes her initial winter up north, where she experienced her first snowfall. “Flip” describes Woodard’s mishap with a trendy new hairdo, undone during a swimming class at school, but redeemed overnight by her mother, with a cornrow remedy that intrigued her (mostly white) classmates.

To be sure, not all of the vignettes register as particularly significant, in terms of illustrating how Neat supposedly enlightened Woodard’s formative years. “Say It Loud” probably serves that function best. The script never explains why it is that Woodard grew up attending Hebrew school and studying Jewish culture and religion, but when Neat asks her about their own African American ancestry, it prompts her to research the history of slavery and apartheid, and eventually to embark on a journey of political awakening and social activism.

“I went from Jane Austen to James Baldwin, from Emily Dickinson to Nikki Giovanni,” she says. Her ’60s flip gave way to a ’70s Afro, and her father took none too well to the Angela Davis poster in her bedroom. Sadly, even eerily, when she reflects on a peaceful protest at her high school, and the violent reaction to it by the local police, Woodard could just as easily be talking about 2020.

Charity Purvis Jordan appears in the Actor's Express show "Neat," streaming through Nov. 22.
Courtesy of Actor's Express
Charity Purvis Jordan appears in the Actor's Express show "Neat," streaming through Nov. 22. Courtesy of Actor's Express

“Bowman,” on the other hand, about her courtship with a tough-talking jock, is fairly superfluous, given how negligibly Neat factors into it. Similarly, other segments (“Saved,” “Goldie”) — detailing Neat’s unexpected pregnancy, the birth of her daughter, and the identity of the child’s (white) father — seem to barely involve Woodard herself.

The final monologue, “Flight,” ties back in nicely with the opening of the show (featuring Jordan singing the spiritual “On the Wings of a Dove”), but it otherwise feels oddly unmoving and anticlimactic.

An interesting footnote: Actor’s Express has configured ticket prices for “Neat” based on the number of viewers and devices enabled and utilized to stream it, with an option to contribute the proceeds to specific members of the company (besides Jordan and Little, also including directors of photography Charles Robinson and Divie Moss, and technical director Chad Fenimore, among others). That’s pretty neat, indeed.

THEATER REVIEW

“Neat”

Available for streaming through Nov. 22. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday. $15-$50. 404-607-7469, actors-express.com.

Bottom line: A one-woman show of episodic vignettes, some of which are more purposeful than others.

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