The daughter of ex-slaves and a washerwoman for most of her life, it was only when she neared middle-age that Sarah Breedlove harnessed her entrepreneurial drive and built a hair-care empire catering to the needs of African-American women. Along the way, she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker—the grand sounding moniker was courtesy of her third husband, C.J. Walker—and became, in effect, the Oprah of her day, using her money and position to influence political and social causes. She was rich, famous, bullheaded, somewhat prickly and had an uncommon sense of self; her personal life, needless to say, was less than satisfying. A straight-ahead bio would have been fascinating enough, but playwright Regina Taylor goes for something less literal in “The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove” (which she also directs) at the Goodman Theatre. Taylor centers her focus on the varied layers of Walker’s personality—in some sense, the “Madam C.J. Walker” persona was a construct like that of any other celebrity—and the complicated relationship with her party-minded daughter, Lelia. It takes a good while to rev up these twin narrative engines (the production has a very deliberate pace), but there is a cumulative power to the script, and the performances—particularly L. Scott Caldwell (as Walker) who must carry the show on her shoulders—have a strength and vigor that creep up on you over the course of the play’s two-and-half hours. (Nina Metz)
“The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove” plays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, through July 23.