Perhaps the best word to describe Charlayne Woodard as a performer is silken. When she crosses the stage, it's as though her body is propelled by a breeze. As lithe as a dancer, she has a voice to match, crisp yet caressing, as she channels the gallery of characters in The Night Watcher — parents, and particularly their children, who came to know Woodard as "Auntie."
Through an array of autobiographical stories, or chapters, Woodard's fourth solo show, directed by Daniel Sullivan, primarily concerns a series of decisions Woodard made not to have or even to adopt children with her husband, Harris — even though kids desperately in need and sometimes abused are being flung at her by the bushel. (Her play is now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre after having been developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and La Jolla Playhouse, and first produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre, before opening in New York at Primary Stages in 2009.)
The heat of guilt is turned on high, revealed through a series of excuses for not adopting children who have nowhere else to go — I'm not ready to be a parent, I wouldn't be a good parent — as if living in a forest and being reared by wolves wouldn't be better for these kids than what they're currently enduring.
Her play is at its best when Woodard takes seriously the solipsism ensuing from choosing career and comfort in a despondent world. She's walking through a store called Puppies and Babies buying a $200 coat for a little pug, Atticus the Wonder Dog, when her mother calls. Mother reveals herself through a mimed cellphone and Woodard's anguished responses to "Charlayne, I'm so disappointed in you. ... A coat for a dog? You could have had children."
Woodard aims to smash through the confines of that ancient, maternal prejudice with a Hillary Clinton-esque view that it takes a village to raise a child. Her various dramatizations reveal how, as Auntie, she served as a much-needed friend and confidante — in one instance to a pregnant 14-year-old who couldn't speak to her mother. Then there's the fallout when the girl's mother discovers that her daughter confessed first to Auntie. And the trauma of learning Woodard's friend's husband has been molesting his nephew. There are portraits of absentee mothers, career-driven — a model Woodard has staked a claim on avoiding for herself.
The performance is both thoughtful and defensive: Woodard meets an African stranger on a train. He learns that she has no children and turns into "Idi Amin's brother," lecturing her on how she's "spitting in God's eye," leading to an argument culminating with his insult, "What a waste." She follows him from train to train, arguing that her life and her kinship with children are anything but a waste.
He turns to her near the scene's end and offers her his blessing (accompanied by audience applause) — as though such a blessing, or even the chase that preceded it, is necessary for a person confident in her convictions.
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This makes the play about a lack of confidence, and its purpose is for Woodard to work through it — a dramatic rationalization posing as an argument, plucked from the My Life Is Good school of theater, or, more specifically, I'm a Good Person No Matter What They Think of Me. It's almost a variant on ethnic and gay identity plays of yore.
With birth rates plunging wherever income rises, how can this not strike a chord in the affluent corners of our society, i.e., with the audiences who attend plays at Seattle Rep, Primary Stages and the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
As a play, The Night Watcher is an emotionally charged, sometimes facile testament to a changing demographic in a culture undergoing slow, tectonic shifts. As a sliver of our times, it's on the mark, and a finer performance would be hard to imagine.
THE NIGHT WATCHER | Written and performed by Charlayne Woodard | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 18 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org