PRETTY FIRE, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. Charlaine Woodard's autobiographical account of growing up black during the years just before the civil rights movement offers little original in the way of content: Charlaine and her sister Allie are born to wise and loving parents, they learn their alphabet, they go to school, they visit wise and loving grandparents. We're with Charlaine the first time she's called "nigger" (by a classmate who innocently believes it's an accolade), the first time she's dirty-talked by an older boy, and the day she learns the power of the artist. These memories are related straightforwardly, with a minimum of self-indulgent introspection and editorializing.
But the material is not what elevates Pretty Fire above "I am woman" formulas. As adapted and directed by Phillip Edward VanLear, Woodard's monologue is now a chorale for five female voices, each player taking a turn in the solo spot while the others transform themselves into characters, sounds, and even props. Under VanLear's sensitive direction, the youthful ensemble delivers uniformly virtuoso performances that make these coming-of-age milestones as fresh and new as if we'd never heard (or lived through) them before. In this season of big "socially significant" sparklers, Pretty Fire is a small, fiery gem. --Mary Shen Barnidge