In 2008, actress and writer Charlayne Woodard was searching for a new stage piece to mount and found a story in her own backyard. The Night Watcher, Woodward’s one-woman show now playing at D.C.’s Studio Theatre, is a powerful and well-acted piece.
Woodward sizzles as a best friend, advisor, confidant and sage to the many young people who call her “Auntie.” Engrossing, funny, and often poignant and disturbing, Woodard defines the delicate line that godparents, aunts and others must walk when mentoring children who are biologically not their own.
Raised in a family of storytellers, Woodward is a gifted actress who has woven together ten vignettes that movingly tell the complexities that arise when children are sometimes neglected, or abused, by parents who are so busy or going through their own pain, that they often drop the ball. In the play, the childless Woodard tells how she and her husband, Harris, step in over the years, but the result, many times, turns out to be more painful than rewarding.
For example, Woodard almost loses a lifelong friend when the woman’s 14-year-old daughter confides to the actress that she is pregnant and does not want Woodard to tell her biological mother. The girl wants an abortion, but Woodard, her godmother, comes up with a plan for the baby to be adopted by a family member. Later, all hell breaks loose when the biological mother reads Woodard the riot act, telling her to get her own kid and to mind her own business.
In another scene, Woodard scoops up her biracial niece for a week in L.A. for what Woodward hopes will be the time of the girl’s life. She soon learns that her small charge is materialistic, selfish, and cringes at the thought of being referred to as “Black.”
In one of the play’s most disturbing moments, Woodard relates the story of another teen who confides over the phone that she is in love with a guy, but we are shocked to learn that it is an uncle. When the wife becomes enraged after listening in secretly on the line, the resulting violence is gut-wrenching.
Equally disturbing is the scene in which Woodward’s nine-year-old nephew confides that he stays awake all night because his absentee father has threatened to burn down Woodard’s parent’s house. He becomes the “night watcher” because he will feel it will be his fault if the threat is carried out. It is a moment that is gripping and terrifying, and one can literally feel the boy’s fear.
If there is a happier part to this tale, it is that despite the challenges these children face, they persevere, and all receive a voice by having their stories played out on stage. As an artist, Woodard has beautifully portrayed an intimate part of her life and used it as fodder for all parents, and custodians, of children to consider.
A major plus of this production is Woodard’s magnetic ability to capture the innocence and childlike qualities of the children that she embraces. The downside is the lack of positive African American resources that Woodard seems to draw on, other than her own parents, to assist her mostly African American charges. She takes them to theme parks and shopping, and for one child who has difficulty reading, Woodard selects To Kill a Mockingbird as a reading selection. I love the story, but one never senses that any black authors, or other positive aspects of African American culture, are introduced to Woodard’s kids.
Still, to Woodard’s credit, this is a compelling piece that brings up a topic not often discussed. The Night Watcher plays Wednesday-Sunday through Nov. 17.