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Hair today, heritage tomorrow: Review of Cuttin' Up 

Going to the barbershop for the first time is an ancient rite of passage for little boys everywhere. But recent events — the death of Jheri-Curl king Don Cornelius or the preschool girl sitting in front of me at a matinee performance of Rapunzel this past weekend in her elaborately patterned cornrows — have reminded me that dealing with Afro hair is a lifelong matter of heightened seriousness, politics, and even philosophy. Rest assured that none of the above squeezes through the front door of Howard's Barber Shop in Charles Randolph-Wright's Cuttin' Up, at Actor's Theatre through March 3.

It's the uniqueness of black barbershops, here in Charlotte and elsewhere, that's the prime focus of Randolph-Wright's stage adaptation of Craig Marberry's nonfiction book rather than the singular qualities of black hair. Howard is most likely to pick an argument with his two colleagues, Andre and Rudy, if they diss the classic Miles Davis coming out of his stereo — or if they switch the station and start mouthing some of today's more profane rap lyrics. We gradually get the message that these ramshackle shops with their retro swivel chairs are places where all walks of life are welcome, from preacher to criminal, and where ancient wisdom, tasty yarns, and newborn gossip are freely circulated between the old and the young.

So Howard's is a more hallowed place than Truvy's salon was in Steel Magnolias yet more secular than Cuttin' Up's elder sister, Crowns, Marberry's paean to black church-going ladies and their precious hats. Without the pageantry and music of Crowns (not to mention Yolanda, the newcomer who served there as our surrogate), the rambling nature of Cuttin' Up — its lack of a plotline — is more achingly apparent when matched up against the tribulations of the Magnolias sextet.

Act 2 pays more attention to the barbers' character development, texturizing Andre's marriages and Rudy's lethargy. There's a substantial enough sliver of plot at the end to justify director/sound designer Chip Decker's choice of John Coltrane's duet with Duke Ellington on "In a Sentimental Mood" as our fadeout. But there are anecdotal doldrums between the comic bits in Act 1 if you aren't digging the music.

Stan Peal's set design is a marvelously detailed evocation of the shop, from the clanging bell perched on the front door to the pantheon of black heroes on the walls, with checkerboard tiling and crappy wood paneling accenting the charming decrepitude. Decker casts with a sharp eye, beginning with Sidney Horton as the homespun Howard and Jeremy DeCarlos as the cool youngblood Rudy. Against these genial, mirthful characters, Brian Daye brings a morose, tragic aura to the wandering Andre, who will never find peace until he faces up to past mistakes.

The rest of the cast play multiple roles, parading into the shop as customers or materializing downstage or stage left when we flash back to past history, mostly Andre's. Decker has these performers going a few ticks past perpendicular rather than playing these folk straight up and natural, so there's always a feeling of lively expectancy when the doorbell jingles or lighting designer Hallie Gray draws our attention away from the shop. Terrell Dulin gets in the funniest licks in the avalanche of cameos, occasionally assisted by the wild wigs and threads from costume designer Jamey Varnadore.

Douglas A. Welton, John W. Price and Ian Fermy also scamper around backstage, changing wigs and costumes between cameos, each one impeccably groomed. Tanya McClellan's roles — including a rampaging girlfriend, a butch customer, and Andre's famous ex-wife — aren't as comical, but they tell us far more about the men and their insular barbershop refuge. The scenes where she rousts out an asylum-seeking boyfriend and puts the moves on Andre are special treats.

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