In the end, Cheatin' never prospers
Regardless, the play started and we were introduced to Sid Cranford, the narrator of the play. He introduced the audience to the setting and gave exposition. In hindsight I should have seen this as a red flag, because an exposition-heavy beginning is the telltale sign of a weak narrative. But Cranford was so charming, funny, and frankly, well-acted, that I didn’t pay it any mind.
But then we were introduced to two more characters, Bo Bob Jasper and Clarence Hopkins. The narrator assured us that these two were best friends, but this was hard to believe right off the bat. Clarence constantly belittled Bo Bob and called him dumb, retarded, and various other cruel things. He would defend his actions by saying it was a joke, but like Bo Bob said, it wasn’t very funny. So a question formed in my mind: how did these two characters become friends? Would this play answer that question or frustrate it? Consistently, it frustrated it.
Now don’t get me wrong, this was a competently put together play. Every single actor present played their characters well. The strongest was Justin Gubersky, who played Cranford. Gubersky added weight and nuance to the character, both in his spoken lines and his silent actions. If he was being sarcastic, I believed him. If he was being genuine, I believed him. But strong acting isn't always enough for a strong show.
Any goodwill built up by quality acting was torn down by the ending, and the fate of Sara Lee Turnover. Her characterization had set her up as a self-confident (if not self-absorbed) hair-dresser who had a heart of gold that took flack from no one. I loved her character — here was a self-assured woman who supported her friends. Sure she could be overbearing and arrogant, but her intentions were good. She constantly gave dating advice to her perpetually unlucky-with-relationships friend Maybelline. When Sara Lee faces similar bad luck in her love-life, she makes a confident decision that fits in with the woman we had known her to be.
But then the ending happened. It was such a forced happy ending that the narrator went as far as to ask the audience if they wanted a happy ending. Fourth-wall broken and a growing headache within me, an ending unfolded that betrayed the nature of the characters the play had established, as well as the agency of Sara Lee Turnover, all for the sake of a conveniently neat ending.
Once the play was over, I stuck around to ask the playwright Del Shores a question. I asked him about characterization because that was the most glaring flaw in my eyes. I brought up Sara Lee and how she did a complete 180 in terms of characterization — he agreed with me. He also said that he’s grown as a writer and he asked me to watch his other plays because "Cheatin’" was written when he didn’t have much experience with writing. I’ll take him up on his offer one day, and I genuinely hope that the plays he's written since show vast improvements in narrative quality.
Should you watch the play? Up to you really. I’ve laid out few of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it, but maybe you’ll find something that I didn’t notice. The audience enjoyed the play more than I, that’s for sure. But if you’re like me and you pay attention to characterization, this play is not for you. Though if you like watching reprehensible characters suffer, more than you like consistency, it just might be. It is, after all, a comedy about some of the worst people.