Few solo performers are as unabashedly ingratiating as the charismatic Charlayne Woodard. Best known for her Tony-nominated performance in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the actress stands alone in her autobiographical play “Pretty Fire ,” and she more than fills the stage.
Other one-handers might offer more memorable, or at least edgier, writing, and both Off Broadway and Broadway stages have been home to quirkier personalities, but Woodard has few contemporary equals for sheer likability. She charms an audience from first word to last, presenting five sweet-natured vignettes chronicling her life from premature birth to the moment, at age 11, when she embarks on a life in the performing arts.
Along the way, Woodard introduces us to her parents, sister, grandparents and others as she travels from her upstate New York childhood home to Savannah, Ga., where she and her sister spent summers with their maternal grandparents.
Woodard’s achievement is in telling lovely stories about a loving family while charting her own growing recognition of life’s injustices. Her first brush with racism comes in the third grade — a name-calling incident — but is soon followed by a more serious encounter: an old-fashioned Southern cross-burning, the “pretty fire” of the title.
Typical of Woodard’s breadth are the two vignettes that form the play’s second act. In “Bonesy,” she relates the haunting story of her childhood molestation at the hands of a neighborhood boy. She follows this horror with “Joy,” the appropriately titled tale that finds Woodard, at the urging of her beloved grandmother, joining the church choir and quickly becoming its star. This final piece has the added benefit of showcasing Woodard’s marvelous singing.
Even at their darkest, her reminiscences are layered with great humor and warmth. Skillfully structured, the five stories, one suspects, could easily be enjoyed on the page, although their literary quality lends the production its one minor fault: In performing the well-crafted stories, Woodard lacks the rambling, improvisational feel that accounts for the intimacy of a Spalding Gray or Eric Bogosian production. The same quibble could be made of any number of soloists — certainly Lynn Redgrave and John Leguizamo — and the complaint doesn’t stand in the way of Woodard’s winning spell over her audience.
“Pretty Fire,” effectively and unobtrusively directed by Lynn Meadow, had a limited run at the Manhattan Theater Club last spring, and now takes up residence at the impressively renovated Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. It is a welcome housewarming.