Discontent with hair is just the beginning of the female self-image problem. Oh, I remember only too well the scorching heat and burning chemicals used to try to force some semblance of a curl into my resistant locks. Noted local actress-poet-playwright Kim El channels that and many other memories in her autobiographical one-woman play, Straightening Combs, presented by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
Directed by veteran actress Chrystal Bates, Combs combines period photos, vintage songs, history and legend with poetry and personal testimony about the arduous journey to self-fulfillment. For El, it wasn't just the world telling her that colored/Negro/black/African-American skin, faces, hair — everything — was ugly, but also the "inferior" and "lowlife" labels slapped on residents of public housing, a.k.a. The Projects.
The story Kim El enlivens and shares is that despite hard work, talent, a supportive family and a college degree, she suffered bad choices, domestic abuse and clinical depression. Breaking out of this chrysalis of pain into mature happiness and self-respect is the climax, with a few final notes of joy.
This is Kim El's game. She takes dramatic turns playing the various women in her life, including herself as a little girl and a solicitous hooker, as well as some of the messed-up men who messed her up physically and psychologically. The spare stage uses two different-sized ladders (get the symbolism, right?) for a variety of settings. Classic soul and pop songs help to ease the delay for costume changes.
Helping to expand Kim El's vision is the design team: Cheryl El-Walker, costumes and makeup; Diane Melchitzky, set; Isabelle Strollo, projections; Thurston Reyes, light; Mark Whitehead, sound; as well as stage manager David Scott, prop master David Conley and drummer Maurice Redwood.
Though it occasionally veers toward the didactic, Straightening Combs provides a serious and satisfying experience.