Coping with crisisChildren’s Theatre of Charlotte debuted My Wonderful Birthday Suit! on February 22, the third play of its 2020-21 virtual season of on-demand shows accessible through its website. With a cast of three actors and a puppeteer and set in a rainbow fantasy land, My Wonderful Birthday Suit! teaches lessons of friendship and acceptance while confronting issues of race and self-confidence.

The play opens with the merry Oobladee (Courtney Reasoner) bursting through sliding doors and running down a rainbow ramp to welcome the audience – her guests – to a very special party. She stands on a beautifully painted blue and gold floor; behind her is an extraordinary set (scenic design by Sydney Lynne Thomas) of multi-colored furniture, wind chimes, glowing rainbow windows, and the Thinking Tree, a grand 18-feet-tall tree of swirling browns and beiges wrapped in lights. Oobladee explains that today’s party will be a surprise for her best friend, Shebopshebe (Rasheeda Moore), who comes from the other side of the rainbow. Another friend, Oobladah (Will Burton Edwards), will be arriving soon to help with preparations. 

Reasoner made for an ebullient Oobladee, dressed in (you guessed it!) rainbow pants and a flowered shirt (costumes by Kahei Shum McRae) and bounding with energy, literally hopping and skipping across the stage as she spoke. With the virtual platform, which is of excellent quality (video production by John Merrick), the whole play appears like a children’s television show: In addition to the vibrant set, there is whimsical lighting (by Robyn Warfield), sound effects (by Tyler Knowles), and even a puppet named Bobo who lives in the Thinking Tree. Oobladee’s monologue at the beginning includes rhetorical questions and is completely directed to the audience, and throughout the show the actors continuously break the fourth wall to invite audience participation. Of course, for this season, there is no live audience, and the kid’s-TV-show feel was perfect for COVID-era children’s theatre. To solidify this adaptation, it might have been interesting for Oobladee and her fellow actors, when addressing the audience, to go ahead and speak to the camera, rather than to the empty house. This production already included shifting camera angles and closeups, making the production film-like; adding the actor relationship to the camera-as-audience, though decisively changing the performance from theatre to TV, might have been even more effective, given the circumstances. 

Oobladee and Oobladah get to work preparing for Shebopshebe’s arrival, which includes unloading an enormous amount of beautifully wrapped presents and practicing how to surprise the guest of honor upon her entrance. When Shebopshebe finally steps through the glowing sliding doors in the dark, Dee and Dah welcome her with great joy. Well, almost. While Oobladee is jubilant to see her oldest and dearest friend, Oobladah is shocked by Shebopshebe’s appearance (they have never met before). We soon learn that he is not pleased by the fact that Shebopshebe is “brown,” while he and Oobladee are white. After a few exclamations of this point (which are at first ignored by both girls), Oobladee finally says that he doesn’t have any best friends who are brown and that people who are different colors should not be together. Both Oobladah and Shebopshebe, who are different colors but have been together their whole lives, are appalled by this, though for different reasons. Oobladah says she does not see color; Shebopshebe, on the other hand, says that it is ridiculous to say one can’t see color. “Are you blind?” she asks. Instead of a lesson of blind tolerance, Shebopshebe demonstrates to her friends that she is, in fact, different-looking, but beautiful because of it. As Oobladah points out, her color is not the only thing that defines Shebopshebe (she also “plays the oboe and likes spaghetti,” among other things), but it is an important characteristic of her identity. However, unlike Oobladee implies, this identity does not and should not segregate her from people with other-looking skin. Luckily, in the end, after visiting the Thinking Tree for wisdom and hearing feedback from the two girls, Oobladee learns that he was ignorant and hurtful and asks Shebopshebe for forgiveness; she, in turn, learns to forgive. Together, the three celebrate Shebopshebe’s birthday and find a metaphor in the presents that surround them: like the presents, human beings are “wonderful on the outside, wonderful on the inside.” 

Though certainly not novel, the play’s central lessons of tolerance, forgiveness, friendship, and self-confidence remain relevant lessons for kids (and adults) of all ages. My Wonderful Birthday Suit! provides a gentle yet vibrant reminder of these lessons. The production will continue to be available on-demand through Monday, March 15. Next, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte concludes its virtual season with a fourth play, Tropical Seasons, which will be available through the same platform in March.

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