Playing an imaginary person is hard enough. Playing a real woman playing herself, in a show that played Seattle successfully within living memory, adds an extra degree or two of difficulty.
But from the moment Tracy Michelle Hughes sweeps us into the world of “Pretty Fire” at Taproot Theatre, she makes Charlayne Woodard’s enchanting autobiographical solo play very much her own.
A robust, savvy performer who last year lent her forceful presence to Intiman Theatre’s mounting of “Trouble in Mind,” Hughes lights up the stage as she relates Woodard’s affectionate, humorous and, in spots, harrowing memoir of a 1950s childhood spent in Albany, N.Y., and the Deep South.
Hughes doesn’t look or sound much like Woodard (who starred in “Pretty Fire” at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1995, and later delivered three other original solo shows there). But who cares? Both share in this context an exuberant, childlike incandescence, an unstinting eagerness to convey a story in all its colors and textures and feelings.
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On a bare stage in Taproot’s cozy new Isaac Studio Theatre, with only a wooden bench and a colorful woven scarf for props, Hughes immediately immerses you in the tale of Woodard’s premature birth. She delineates many characters well, most from the loving, close-knit African-American clan of anxious parents and sagacious grandparents who are pulling for the tiny “blue black” infant to survive.
Survive Charlayne does, growing with gusto into a bright, curious, animated little girl who discovers her love of performing while belting out a church choir solo at the behest of her grandma.
Her childhood appears to be a generally happy one, undaunted by some playful rivalry with a little sister and some high expectations from elders. But “Pretty Fire” also doesn’t ignore the terrors a black female child can face, the threats to her innocence.
There is the crushing pain of being called a racial epithet by a white girl you thought was your friend. There is the hazing by a scary real-life boogeyman, a neighborhood punk who comes within a hair’s breadth of sexually molesting you.
And, in the episode that gives the play its title, there is the moment when your annual summer idyll with relatives in Georgia is marred by the setting alight of an enormous cross on a nearby lawn. What to a child at first just seems like “pretty fire” leaves a lasting, scarring burn as “the ugliest thing you will ever see.”
Hughes makes you feel the heat and hurt of that searing incident. But her vivacious performance (under Nathan Jeffrey’s direction) also animates the simple joys of jumping in puddles, feeling “red clay mud squish between your toes” and watching “Mighty Mouse” cartoons.
This show is a great baptism of the Isaac Studio Theatre, a compact but well-equipped venue with tiered seating and good sightlines. In Taproot’s snazzy new wing, the company has also just opened the Stage Door Cafe, a lobby spot offering food and drinks at lunch and in the evenings.