Secrets in Plain Sight is a sort of soap opera done live, set in urban Columbia and aimed at an urban Columbia audience. Replete with deception, romantic conflict, and dangerous liaisons, the original script by Tangie Beaty, Donna Johnson and LeTasha Robinson may not be headed for Broadway any time soon, but it certainly charmed an appreciative matinee audience at the WOW Performing Arts Center last Sunday.
If you’re not familiar with WOW — short for “Walking On Water” — Productions, the theater group maintains a 60-seat black box-style venue just off Two Notch. Their mission is threefold: to provide acting opportunities for local performers at all levels of experience, including plentiful roles for actors of color; to showcase original works by authors including cofounders Beaty and Johnson; and to present productions that often include an uplifting or inspirational theme.
Much like the last WOW show I attended, Love Lies, the inspiration here consisted primarily of occasional references to trusting in God, which were never overly preachy or intrusive, and indeed were completely appropriate for the characters.
Action centers around a stylish hair salon owned by the seemingly sweet Michelle (Dana Bufford) and her slick, would-be-player husband Demetrius (Darian Hill). Looking to make a new start, winsome Sonya (Mani Millss) joins the staff, which includes single dad Leon (Glenn Duane Johnson) and sassy receptionist Tasha. Arischa Conner Frierson, who finished a run in Sex on Sunday at Trustus approximately 18 hours earlier, stepped in to play Tasha at the last minute for the matinee I attended, and captured the character’s uninhibited flirtatiousness and ebullience with ease, generating some of the show’s biggest laughs.
While the script has few actual jokes, the interaction of disparate personality types bred humor throughout. Added to the mix are customers Diane (Rhonda Adams), her husband Richard (Deon Turner) and sensitive detective Troy (Bucky Kennedy). Like any good soap, most of the characters have a complicated past with each other that impels the play’s narrative — which delves into heavy themes, including domestic violence and a cold case murder from 11 years earlier.
While the WOW space is cozy, with action unfolding only a few feet away from the audience, head and body microphones were employed by the cast, and this often led to the actors neglecting to project. All the performers were earnest, sincere and completely believable in their portrayals thanks to William Young IV’s direction, but often delivered their lines as if they were being filmed, essentially forgetting to play to the live audience, muffling lines and obscuring some bits of exposition. Bufford, Frierson and Millss mostly managed to overcome that challenge, displaying capable and savvy stage presence, while the clarity and intensity of Johnson’s delivery grew as the show progressed, leading to a gripping emotional outburst in the second act that inspired a spontaneous round of applause.
Sadly, the play’s denouement felt both rushed and contrived, although entirely in keeping with tropes found in serial dramas on television, right down to a cliffhanger and the promise of an upcoming sequel. Thunderous applause ensued.
I feel much of this positive reaction is due to the authors’ ear for realistic dialogue, and the relaxed ease and naturalism of the cast. Within the sexy and sensationalistic plot a more serious examination of abusive relationships and why people feel compelled to make bad choices could have progressed — although that would require an extensive rewrite, necessarily losing most of the comedy and much of Leon’s backstory.
Still, I’m confident that the directors and author accomplished the specific goals they set out to achieve, and that audiences will pack the house for the next installment of sex, lies and secrets at the salon.
What:Secrets in Plain Sight
Where:WOW Performing Arts Center, 5816 Shakespeare Rd, Ste A
When:Through July 22
Price:$23 ($20 advance)