The `Beauty Shop' as Cultural Hub

`PEOPLE should not go into a beauty shop talking about their personal business," says Chris, a hairdresser in the Pamper Me Beauty Salon.

Fortunately they do.

There's Wilbert, leaning on his cane, who laments his "poor and departed wife."

"Oh, she's not dead," he explains, "She just got tired of being poor and departed."

There's Angela Buchanan, who discovers her husband Larry has been having an affair with one of the hairdressers. "You're never home," complains Larry. Angela replies that she is always out entertaining clients. "But, Angela, you sell Tupperware," Larry says.

Wilbert, Chris, Larry, and Angela are all characters at the Pamper Me where they entertain predominately black audiences in "Shelly Garrett's Beauty Shop Part 2," currently on tour.

Garrett wrote Part 1 over six days in 1987. Over four years, including two years on the road, Garrett, the producer and director of the show, says Part 1 grossed $25 million. In August 1990, ABC aired a sitcom called "New Attitude" that was based on his show. It lasted five weeks and earned respectable ratings but was not as popular as the program preceeding it and was pulled. Garrett says Part 2 has been outgrossing Part 1 so far.

The two shows provide a window into black society. The forum is a beauty shop, chosen because of its central role in the black community where, Garrett says, "there is a beauty shop on almost every corner." Anything goes in the beauty shop, which is owned by a full-figured woman called Margaret. Garrett manages to take sensitive issues, such as female obesity, and make the audience laugh with, not at, the characters.

"The whole idea is let me help you forget your troubles for 2 1/2 hours. I promise you that when you get in here you will forget them because what I'm trying to do is to make people laugh," says Garrett. And, not just a snicker or a smile. "I mean a gut laugh where you laugh so hard tears are running down your face.... I don't mean every 10 minutes, I mean every 90 seconds I want you to holler," he explains.

The story line for the show is simple. In the first act, various customers come into the shop where they discuss their personal affairs. In the second act, the beauty shop throws a party for Margaret who is getting married to an attractive man, played by Marc Ram, with a body builder's physique. The second act concludes with an elaborate wedding, complete with laser show.

Even though the characters make fun of Margaret's size, Garrett tries not to make the audience, which is normally about 75 percent female, feel uncomfortable. Margaret, as played by Adrian Black, is attractive and nicely dressed. "You can talk about her, but she's not going to let you talk about her without saying something too," notes Garrett. And, of course, Margaret gets the best-looking man by the end of the play. "All the full-figured ladies in the audience win, and the entire audience is happy for them and Margaret," says Garrett.

Amen to that. The audience roars at the jokes. It "oohs" and "aahs" at all the right places. Women stand up and dance.

"Beauty Shop Part 2" received a rave review earlier this month from Linda Armstrong in the Amsterdam News, a New York newspaper aimed at the black community. Ms. Armstrong suggested the play should be added to the dictionary under the definition of "hilarious."

However, some theater critics who have seen the show have been unhappy, claiming the characters are stereotypes. A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, after criticizing Part 1, said that it may not be fair to judge "Beauty Shop" by the usual Anglo-European standards. "You might as well apply the laws of physics to Dante's Inferno," she wrote.

Garrett says that writing for a black audience requires a different approach than for white audiences. He went to see "Steel Magnolias," which is also set in a beauty shop but has a white cast. "I didn't understand it," he says.

GARRETT doesn't think most of the sitcoms on television are funny either. He admits he "hollered out loud" over the 1970s series, "Sanford and Son." And he thinks Bill Cosby produces a good show, mainly because Cosby is funny.

But the two reach different audiences: Most of Garrett's customers are black while Cosby is writing for a mixed audience.

Although Garrett is currently known for his humor, in March he plans to roll out a musical drama called "Black and Battered." He says the focus of the show, starring Garrett's girlfriend Meli'sa Morgan, will explore why black women in America are consistently battered by their husbands but won't leave. It is a subject Garrett feels has not been treated seriously. "If your husband is beating you why do you remain in this situation? I'm going to bring all this out," he says.

Then, in the fall, Garrett hopes to produce "Ecstasy," a musical aimed at the black audience. The characters will be an innocent young lady who falls in love with a playboy.

Garrett himself grew up in San Bernadino, Calif., where his father worked for the city and his mother was an educator. For 14 years he worked as an actor in such television shows as "Rockford Files," and the "Six Million Dollar Man." He was frequently cast as a pimp or a drug pusher. "You usually got killed at the end of the show to illustrate that crime didn't pay," Garrett says.

No more bit parts: Garrett now travels in a refitted luxury bus, has at least four personal assistants and a bodyguard. Nevertheless, Garrett filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the federal Central District Bankruptcy Court in California on March 5.

His lifestyle, in fact, has disturbed the original investors in Shelly Garrett Productions. In 1989, he was sued by 14 of the investors who put up $500 each in a limited partnership to fund Part 1.

According to Gene Harter, an attorney for the investors, the suit is likely to be resolved early next year. "These were people of very limited means who put almost all their life savings into the partnership," says Mr. Harter, who expects a large judgment against the theatrical producer. Garrett said he thought the case had been resolved and referred questions to his attorney, who was unavailable at the time of writing.

There is also another side to Garrett. At every city he says he gives 50 tickets to the homeless to see a matinee and eat dinner with the staff. "It is very gratifying; they say their prayer and start crying," says Garrett. This is, of course, after they've had tears running down their cheeks from laughing.

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