Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery

By Erin Greer

“We are the sum-total of our experiences.”—Margo Moorer, Aunt Mae

They say “misery loves company”—but whoever ‘they’ are, it’s obvious that they haven’t met Daughter and her eight Big Mommas, all of whom are currently “Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery” at Horizon Theatre.

On stage through August 22, cast members Amber Iman (Daughter) along with Naomi Lavette, Cynthia D. Barker, Andrea Frye, Tonia Jackson, Margo Moorer, Marguerite Hannah and Danielle Deadwyler (all mamas) give life to Atlanta playwright Shay Youngblood’s tale of the trials and triumphs of black women. The journey is a special one—both in subject matter and in history—as the show is a revival of Horizon’s first world premiere.

“We are so proud to welcome ‘Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery’ back to the Horizon stage,” said Lisa Adler, coartistic producing director at Horizon. “As our first world premiere, this show holds a special place in our hearts as well as in the hearts of our audiences, all of whom, we hope, will be touched by the show’s message of strength, family and love.”

Originally produced at Horizon in 1988, much of the original cast—and even the playwright—have returned to celebrate the homecoming. Moorer, who originated the roles of Maggie, Dee Dee and Ms. Rosa, takes the stage in the 2010 production as Aunt Mae, a character she describes as “fearless.”

“Aunt Mae brings the spirit of independence,” Moorer said. “She works for herself and calls her own shots. She comes from a long line of independent matriarchal women and has no qualms or shame about anything she does, because ‘it is what it is.’ To her, life is exactly what you make it, especially when it comes to ownership. She promotes the idea of owning oneself. Not having to bow down to anybody.”

Independence is one of many lessons the Big Mommas share with Daughter, who, ironically, is played by Moorer’s actual daughter, Amber Iman. Only 18 months old when “Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery” premiered at Horizon, Iman attended her mother’s rehearsals and memorized the entirety of the play. The experience has been one of bonding for the pair, and for the cast in general.

“We have a lot of fun in the dressing room,” Moorer said. “We bring a fullness and a wholeness and a family-type situation [to the show.]”

Given the show’s history—Moorer, Iman, Hannah and Frye all have ties to the previous “Shakin’ the Mess” performances at Horizon, and Jackson previously performed the piece in Minneapolis—it’s no wonder the cast feels they have come together to form a cohesive ‘family’ both on and off stage. Even newcomers Lavette and Barker are ‘feelin’ the love’ of the show.

Lavette, who plays Lamama, said the show’s emphasis on “sisterhood,” especially within child rearing, is one women can identify with.

“It’s message still rings true today. It really does take a village to raise a child,” she said.

When it comes to raising Daughter, Lavette said Lamama, who married an African and adopts African customs and speech, offers the child a link to her ancestry.

“It’s the value of community,” Lavette said. “From Lamama’s perspective, I think some of the themes [of Shakin’ the Mess] are the value of remembering where we came from and honoring our ancestors and never letting go of your dreams.”

Like Lavette, Barker also emphasized the show’s focus on community.

“The sense of community has been lost in a lot of ways. I think it’s important just to remind people that our ancestors made it because of the help of other people. We survive off of each other. Nobody can make it on their own,” she said.

While Aunt Mae offers independence, and Lamama emphasizes community, Barker said her character, Maggie, teaches Daughter the value of assets.

“Maggie’s gift she gives to Daughter is how to use her assets to her advantage as opposed to letting others take advantage of her assets,” Barker said. “It’s a way of protecting herself. It’s like a survival kit if you will.”

Survival. It’s a theme that rings true for the show, the cast and the theatre, which, through the generosity of theatre patrons and donors, recently closed its $90,000 budget gap to end fiscal year 2010 ‘in the black.’

Horizon’s staff and artistic teams are eternally grateful to patrons and donors for their support, and hope the theatre can give back through productions like “Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery”—shows which, according to Barker, emphasize the ability of the human spirit to overcome.

“There is nothing too difficult, nothing too hard, nothing too tragic that can happen to you that you cannot overcome,” Barker said. “I think that’s the essence of the title. With family and friends and laughter and religion, there is nothing that you cannot overcome. Don’t sit in those dark moments because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the light at the end. Yes life is hard, yes things happen, but that is not the end of the story.”

“Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery” is one of two Youngblood plays currently showing at Horizon. The other, “Amazing Grace,” is part of the Family Series and runs through August 15.

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