“Secrets, no matter how hard we try to hide them, even the best kept secrets buried in the deepest part of our past, always seem to have a way of resurrecting themselves.”
– from “Who Put My Business in the Street”
AcTiNuPpRoDuCtIoNs presented “Who Put My Business in the Street” on Saturday, November 9th at Donald M. Edwards Memorial Auditorium. The production was absolutely electrifying. Playwright and director Ade Burns has crafted a remarkable tale of secrets, lies, abuse, and ultimately redemption that takes viewers on a healing journey with lots of surprises along the way.
Sisters Leslie and Bridgette Portwood grew up in a household plagued with abuse. Their father, Jesse “Daddy P” Portwood (Jerry Dwight Bulls), rules his domain with an iron fist. When the Department of Human Services intervenes in their family situation, it sends the young girls into a spiral that proves to have long lasting repercussions beyond anyone’s imagination. During the DHS worker’s police accompanied visit to assess the girls’ safety and care, their mother, Geraldine Portwood (Quinette Lashay), collapses and dies, apparently overwrought with distress.
With the DHS investigation terminated, supposedly to spare the sisters any further grief, the young girls (Ale’ya Lee and Monica Mitchell) find themselves in the sole care and custody of the ruthless Daddy P. “You ain’t mean, you just mean what you say”, the Portwood girls dutifully reply to his demands. Without their mother’s protection, it seems the vulnerable young siblings are doomed, but there is a glimmer of hope in the form of young Zebbie (Kendall D. Johnson), a neighborhood friend. The charming, bright boy begins visiting frequently and sitting in Leslie’s windowsill at night to protect her from the “monster under the bed.” Zebbie’s mere presence proves a calming force in the Portwood house, as Daddy P seems to mellow out when he’s around. The relative tranquility of their environment is again threatened as Zebbie shows up and announces that he is being sent off to boarding school. Leslie, to whom Zebbie has made a promise to stand by her forever, is distraught by the news of his departure.
Fast forward several years, and grown up Leslie Portwood (Miss Cookie Turner), is now a social worker in the DHS office herself, obviously having been motivated to pursue her altruistic career by a strong sense of justice and a desire to help at-risk children avoid the same abuse she endured. Despite Leslie’s professional success, she is plagued with loneliness as she wrestles with confidence and self-esteem issues stemming from her childhood. Insecure about her weight and appearance, she unravels upon learning that young Zebbie has grown up to become software tycoon Zebulon H. Fitzgerald III (Nate Devon T), and is returning home to rekindle their childhood flame and fulfill his promise. What will he think when he sees her?
Leslie’s younger sister Bridgette (Kristal Stallworth-Little) has also blossomed as a woman, but has taken a very different path in life. Although she doesn’t appear to lack confidence or self esteem as Leslie does, it is clear that Bridgette is deficient in the humility and integrity departments. She relentlessly seeks opportunity to extinguish the flame between Leslie and Zebulon, determined to sabotage her sister by any means necessary. Her deceitfulness is rooted in bitterness, jealousy and vindictiveness as she carries secrets that threaten to rock her sister’s world as well as her own.
The drama is not confined to the home shared by the sisters; there’s plenty of chaos and confusion to go around at the DHS office as well. The receptionist, Pleasure Howse (Star Goldsmith), has lots of attitude and little professional etiquette, more concerned with monitoring her Facebook drama than doing her job. Trying to escape an abusive relationship with “Peanut” (Russell Nealy), she is pursued by chivalrous mild-mannered delivery man Isaiah Buchanan (Jeffrey Gordon), who has a secret of his own. Despite Pleasure’s ratchet façade, she longs for a relationship with God, and the love of a good man.
DHS visitors bring their own ready made drama, including pimp-ish figure Limp-Leg Luther (Yosiah Israel McTier) and questionable mother Bonita Taylor (Hennessy Finley), who try to scam the system using Bonita’s daughter Miracle (passionately portrayed by Tiffany Maddox). Miracle – who was Leslie’s first case – is alternately timid and defiant, as she also carries a secret that may give her leverage against “Ms. Bonita.” Roscoe Evans (Corvin Barlow) is a stand-up father forced to make a tough decision by the unfit mother of his precocious daughter Roxi (Katelyn Johns).
Not even the cleaning staff is exempt from turmoil. Mother Marie Hodges, portrayed with razor sharp wit by Shannon D. Young, is a hard working, Holy Ghost filled, no-nonsense cleaning lady. Despite bearing her own cross in the form of a drug-addicted son J’Marcus (Cleon Windley), Mother Marie gets everybody else together, praying, preaching or quoting a relevant scripture whenever the need arises. She resists temptation to go off on antagonistic co-worker Lindsey Hope (Tiffany Jay Hartfield) who serves as the perfect foil for Mother Hodges’ sermons and wisecracks. Lindsey also has a troubled daughter, Nikki (Emma Easiley), and Mother Marie’s faith in adversity shows Lindsey that perhaps she is lacking something.
The cast shines together, telling Burns’ riveting tale with humor, attitude and raw emotion. Miss Cookie is flawless as the strong-yet-insecure Leslie, who gradually blossoms into the confident woman she desires to be. Stallworth-Little is incredible as the devious, conceited Bridgette, revealing a greater emotional depth – and undergoing a beautiful character transformation – as the story unfolds. The two sisters’ voices are incredible as they individually and collectively belt out gospel standards to accentuate their story. Excellent vocal performances are also given by Nate Devon T (in a duet with Miss Cookie), Tiffany Jay Hartfield and Rayshone Anderson (“Rufus”), as well as Cleon Windley. Hartfield is marvelous in her surprising emotional transformation. Windley and Easiley both beautifully transform as well, stirring the audience spiritually with their portrayal of their deliverance.
Tracy Ruffin-Richardson is exemplary as social worker Mrs. Gwen Odom, as is Shaun Coleman as Officer Gibbs, who even treats the audience – and himself – to a “Denzel moment” during one of his brief but effective stage appearances.
Star Goldsmith is perfectly animated and appropriately extra as Pleasure, displaying remarkable stage presence, attitude and humor. Russell Nealy plays the abusive, hot-headed Peanut to perfection. Jeffrey Gordon strikes the ideal balance of Alpha-male and sensitive gentleman as Isaiah Buchanan. Deserving of special recognition is Shannon D. Young, whose Mother Hodges takes the audience to church and displays perfect wit and comedic timing.
Hats off to Ade Burns for an excellently written and directed story, and to the wonderful cast and crew of “Who Put My Business in the Street?” This dramatic, humorous, inspiring tale has left a lasting impression on Oklahoma City. Here’s hoping there will be many more such works to come in the future from AcTiNuPpRoDuCtIoNs. If Saturday is any indication, we will be there in full force. And you can believe that those of us who were honored to partake of this triumphant production will indeed put it in the street.
Brian C. Scott