Lincoln actress, author and professor Kwakiutl Dreher engaged and charmed an audience that braved a frigid night for the opening of her one-woman show “In a Smoke-filled Room, Color Matters” Thursday at the Haymarket Theatre.
The rewards were well worth the chilly venture for an original work of art springing from Dreher’s interests in African-American visual culture, beautifully presented through her strong and attractive stage presence.
As the playwright of “In a Smoke-filled Room,” Dreher created the character Azalea Lee Smith as a skilled African-American seamstress who appears in her workroom, late in life, looking back. In less capable dramatic hands, the story could ring false or flat but with Dreher’s driving energy — in voice, movement, even song -- there is much to be enjoyed and learned.
Azalea describes how she grew into her craft and found that sewing gave her not only a livelihood but “something I could call my own.”
In telling of the great love of her life, her husband “Big Black Zen,” the lighter skinned Azalea paints in more detail than is ordinarily shared, the issues of “keeping the color,” whether that be the light color of her family or the dark skin prized by her husband’s family.
These matters and the foibles of the members of a close community within a community, or of a family, are pieced together, like the fabric scraps in Azalea’s workroom, to create a satisfying personal story, supported by Dreher’s performance.
An associate professor of English with specialties in African-American literature, popular culture and film, Dreher told the Journal Star she first wrote the play to relieve herself of the weight of graduate school and, she said, she wrote it just for herself. She has continued to revise and refine the work.
Dreher is also the author of “Dancing on the White Page: Black Women Entertainers Writing Autobiography,” which examines the work of Lena Horn, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Mary Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg. She lists autobiography as one of her areas of academic interests.