The veteran actor Charlayne Woodard is not a mother, but she is a tireless source of nurture and inspiration for many impressionable young people in her orbit. Her improving influence, more than the kids who are the beneficiaries thereof, is the subtext of her one-woman-show The Night Watcher, which has been staged in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York and is now at Studio Theatre. Wait, did I say subtext? Actually, it’s the text. And the ur-text. If you have or know a child, by all means, consider introducing that girl or boy to Woodard immediately.
Am I being unfair? Maybe a little. I shall dutifully report that at the performance I attended, the audience seemed rapt, and they leapt to their feet to award Woodard a standing ovation the instant it was over. (And when she joked that she calls Starbucks Coffee “Star-crack,” that line killed.) I shall further report that I have no children, nor nieces/nephews nor godchildren—Woodard has 21 and 13, respectively—and acknowledge that Woodard’s tales of kids healed by her affection might connect more powerfully with audiences who do.
There’s no denying Woodard’s energy and skill as a performer and storyteller. From the moment she bounds onstage to ersatz daytime talk-show music (by Karl Fredrik Lundberg), she has the authority of her 59 years but the appearance and physicality of someone decades younger. (She played Kate in a Shakespeare Theatre Company production of The Taming of the Shrew when she was already in her fifties, and by all accounts—I didn’t see it—crushed the role.) There’s a grace and athleticism to her movements as she prowls the stage of Studio’s Mead Theatre space. And that stage, as appointed by Luciana Stecconi with an array of three-dimensional framed knickknacks that Michael Lincoln lights individually as Woodard is telling the story that corresponds to each one, is visually interesting.
As in any autobiographical show, Woodard isn’t playing herself, exactly, but a character based on herself, crafted for public consumption. Halfway through, this anthology of not two, not three, not four, but 10 —10!—variations on Thank God That Kid Ran Into Charlayne Woodward, or Actually, I Guess You Could Just Thank Me, Charlayne Woodard, I was still expecting to hear if or how Woodard’s selective involvement with these still-forming humans had ever taught her something. But she—that is, her character—ends the evening in the same emotional place she started. That’s a lecture, not a story.
It’s possible, even likely, that an 11-year-old (like the one Woodard, in one tale, indulges with a $150 pair of Oakley sunglasses) has nothing to teach a 59-year-old woman who’s been working successfully in a competitive field for more than 35 years. But some inkling of growth on Woodard’s part might make this evening feel less self-congratulatory than it does, which is: A Lot. A whoooooooooole lot.
Low self-esteem, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, even sexual abuse—no social ill is too venomous for Woodard’s TLC to neutralize. And on occasions when her loving intervention offends the recipient’s biological parents, they’re shamed into action where their prior efforts have been lacking. Not only does she make kids better kids, she makes parents better parents!
Woodard, who was in the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and had a recurring role on the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, refers to herself in the show as a “blue-collar actor.” In one story, a young visitor expresses disdain that she drives a Volvo, and that she and her husband (his name is Harris, he’s white, he has a saxophone, and that’s everything we ever learn about him) share an apartment. “We live simply,” Woodard explains.
I don’t doubt it. It’s better, after all, to give than to have. But if you can persuade people to pay you to spend two hours every night telling them how much you give? That’s got to be the pinnacle.