Dynamic performances cover for many, but not all, the dramatic flaws in Regina Taylor’s play “The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove.” As an actor-playwright — Emmy-nominated for her gorgeous work in the short-lived series “I’ll Fly Away” — Taylor has a feel for the playable, and she invests the individual scenes in this story about the nation’s first African-American millionaire businesswoman with a plethora of sassiness. But she never quite locates a dramatic core for this ultimately amorphous bio-drama.
In the Goodman production, Taylor directs a cast led by the formidable L. Scott Caldwell. While the play sets forth a somewhat vague outline of a highly intriguing life, Caldwell delivers a compelling and convincing perf, taking the title character believably from a washerwoman to a successful businesswoman to a diva-like icon whose triumphant public life is tempered by a troubled personal one.
In the opening scene, set at the turn of the century, Caldwell catches just the right combo of earthy humility and latent ambition for Breedlove, the daughter of emancipated slaves who makes a decent but unexciting living washing laundry, trying hard to save enough to send daughter Leila to college.
The elegant tablecloths and other linen of her wealthy, white clientele hang above the stage in Scott Bradley’s elegant set design, which eventually transforms into a mansion — with smart, spare use of angular doorframes and colorful, stylized draperies — as the character’s material fortunes improve.
Sarah makes it big on the back of a “miracle” hair formula, although the source of her innovation remains in dispute throughout. She claims the idea came to her in an African-infused dream of which we get brief glimpses, and she experimented to find the right formula. According to gossip — shared by Sarah’s friend Nola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) — she stole the mixture from another local entrepreneur.
The business is taken to another level when Sarah meets C.J. Walker, portrayed by the charismatic Keith Randolph Smith as one heck of a salesman. In a scene that demonstrates Taylor’s gift for cheeky gab, Smith turns a speech about marketing to people’s needs into a credible seduction. Sarah soon becomes Madam C.J. Walker, whose image on tins of her hair tonic turns her into an early, African-American version of Mary Kay.
While the play explores some issues associated with business and wealth and racial injustice, Taylor turns the story mostly toward the sad, although not tragic, elements of Walker’s personal life. Her marriage goes sour, and her battling relationship with her fun-loving but stubborn and irresponsible daughter forms the most substantive drama of the evening.
As Leila, Nikki E. Walker is able to stand toe-to-toe with Caldwell, and the scenes between these two performers are never less than involving.
Some ripe dialogue and strong acting, though, can’t fully make up for the fact that the play never takes shape as a narrative. Sacrificing insight, it meanders through its subject’s life a bit too much like a tour guide trying hard to hit the high points.
Taylor admirably resists turning this into a straightforward bio-drama, but she also never establishes a convincing alternative to the form despite employing a range of dramatic styles. Characters talk often of what will exist “a hundred years from now,” in a yearning Chekhovian search for the historical context of their actions, and there’s a Brechtian quality to the way the story leaps forward in time, with short titles of scenes projected above the proscenium. (There is also something reminiscent of Mother Courage in Caldwell’s portrayal of a savvy businesswoman.)
But despite these efforts, the play is never more than semi-stylized, and it doesn’t congeal into something that builds either dramatically or thematically.
It’s worth noting that Taylor’s most commercially successful work, “Crowns,” was a series of anecdotes — a form that made the most of her strength in communicating characters’ attitudes. That’s not enough for a story of this size and scope. Walker never is faced with truly stark dilemmas that would define her deepest self for us, nor are the thematic elements nurtured into a deeper consideration of her story’s meaning.
Taylor incorporates the character’s political beliefs, and the civil-rights issues of the times, but they feel inessential, like facts tacked on to an encyclopedia entry.
“The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove” delivers mother-daughter histrionics and indistinct cliches about flying and dreaming. While Caldwell and the rest of the cast indeed make a lot of this fly, even these fine perfs can gain only so much altitude when the vehicle lacks lift.