Sarah Breedlove wasn't born into slavery when she began her phenomenal rise to become the first American woman millionaire, reinventing herself as Madam CJ Walker. But as we saw in Kami Shalom's impressive one-woman show, Call Me Madam: The Making of an American Millionaire, Sarah's older siblings were born before Emancipation, and the road to riches was anything but smooth. Her parents died when she was young, her brother-in-law abused her when she moved in with her older sister, and her first husband also died young, leaving Sarah with a daughter to raise.
Shalom's script certainly didn't gloss over these hardships, but the On Q production, directed by Candace Jennings, was far from impoverished. Two of the most striking costumes, co-designed by Shalom and Davita Matthews, enable the actress to turn in memorable stints as a Ku Klux Klansman and Yellow Jack, the personification of yellow fever. Opening the show, video by Dazzell Matthews took us beyond even the Don Cornelius era of hair care.
So when Shalom flashed her poise and versatility early in her narrative, we could be sure that the rest of her story would continue to flow with fresh fascination and variety. Ultimately, I felt the 83-minute performance ended too soon, particularly anemic in its 29-minute second act, chronicling her rise from scrubwoman to tycoon. While becoming a millionaire is unquestionably a triumph, Call Me Madam doesn't tell us what Madam CJ did with her fortune once she made it, omitting her subsequent philanthropies and honors. The aftertaste is rather Romneyesque, as if making money and providing other women with respectable livelihoods were the acme of goodness.
We also hear very little from Madam's daughter Lelia, who succeeded her mom as CEO, so the portrait of Sarah as a parent is limited to our glimpses of her tenacity as a provider. Mister CJ, whose entrepreneurial skills helped Sarah build her hair care empire, was certainly wayward as both a husband and a father, providing the action after intermission with an outsized portion of its dramatic bite.
As a rags-to-riches story that takes us from Emancipation to empowerment, Call Me Madam has a sturdy engine driving it, and Shalom's performance added admirable verve to her script. But to be truly inspirational, as is clearly the writer/actress's intent, her heroine's perseverance, resourcefulness, and strength need to be matched by her heart.