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A Wonder in My Soul

Gentrification brings drama in Marcus Gardley's new play.

Camille Robinson, Greta Oglesby, Donica Lynn, and Jacqueline Williams in A Wonder in My Soul, directed by Chay Yew, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

A Wonder in My Soul is a marvelous play that begins with a familiar old trope: a beloved fixture of the community is in danger of foreclosure, and by God, the whole gang's got to band together and save it. At Victory Gardens, playwright Marcus Gardley and director Chay Yew have taken that dusty premise and rejuvenated it, giving it specificity and authenticity.

It's 2008. There's a beauty parlor on the South Side of Chicago that has been open for nearly 40 years. At its peak, it was full of women from the moment it opened until it closed; women who came for hair appointments and stayed for gossip, affirmation, and community. But the neighborhood is changing, and those busy days are long gone. The proprietors, Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams) and Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby), are behind on their mortgage payments. A loan made in better days to Bell's son Lafayette (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.) may never be paid back, and yes, the salon is facing foreclosure.

There is great depth in Gardley's script. At times, it addresses politics directly: Barack Obama's first presidential campaign unfolds in the background, and Lafayette's community youth center is the focal point of an administrative scandal. But A Wonder in My Soul also explores the inherently political side of personal identity, particularly for black women who are expected to conform to a litany of Eurocentric beauty standards. In their salon, Bell, Birdie, and their customers can't stop the approaching wave of gentrification, and while they know it includes some abstract improvement to their neighborhood, the damage it brings is immediate and tangible.

Much like their previous collaboration, last season's The House That Will Not Stand, Yew smartly allows the lyricism of Gardley's script to stand on its own. The long, poetic monologues throughout the play need no embellishment, particularly in the hands of Williams, whose aching sincerity is palpable. As the practical Aberdeen, Greta Oglesby is the beating heart of the ensemble. Her singing voice is beautiful and clear, and she is a master of physicality, revealing a lifetime of dreams deferred with a simple shrug.

Donica Lynn and Camille Robinson appear in flashbacks as young Bell and Birdie, respectively, traveling from early schoolyard days into single-motherhood with a playful spark. Lynn, frequently showcased in powerhouse musical turns, is equally capable in a supporting role, double-cast as Young Bell and as Bell's grown daughter Paulina, a no-nonsense police officer with a chip on her shoulder.

Linda Bright Clay brings laughter with every entrance as First Lady, a sanctimonious but sincere pastor's wife who still drives in from the suburbs for her weekly do. First Lady and her assistant Normal Beverly (Robinson, also double-cast) make a fine comic pair. As the lone man onstage, Freelon gives a vulnerable performance as the well-intentioned Lafayette. As expected in a play about a beauty parlor, the wig design by Johnny Jamison is spectacular, and cleverly deployed throughout the play.

Carefully balancing sentimentality and humor, A Wonder in My Soul addresses love, friendship, and loss in a swiftly changing city. The tightly directed cast of six makes beautiful poetry of Gardley's lilting, dreamy script.