S a performer, Dael Orlandersmith, who wrote and starred within the Obie-triumphing 1995 one-individual display Beauty’s Daughter, is pure empathic gravitas. Her cutting-block physique, orotund voice, and stately bearing provide her a monumental presence, whilst her uncanny potential to conjure exquisitely broken and pathetic characters lend a disarming warm temperature to the entirety she does. And she captivates thru the most modest of approach; a slight shift of her head, lowering her voice, or adjustment of her posture is all she desires to convert convincingly from one personality to some other.
Chicago’s Wandachristine, who plays Beauty’s Daughter in American Blues Theater’s present-day revival, is in many methods Orlandersmith’s polar contrary. She’s lithe and unassuming. Nothing approximately her intimidates or towers. And with regards to developing characters, she’s as demonstrative as Orlandersmith is reserved.
So possibly it’s not surprising that director Ron OJ Parson has staged Beauty’s Daughter in a bracing, if not entirely a hit, anti-Orlandersmith fashion. The 90-minute show, made of monologs and poems, is a carefully curated gallery of overdue 20th-century Harlem denizens, from heroin-addled former blues guy Blind Louie to aspiring novelist and small-time dope provider Papo aged starlet as soon as-become Mary Askew.
Each desperately wishes something from tough-as-nails poet Diane, who’s fled Harlem to pursue literary goals and now acts as the audience’s tour guide via her former community. While Orlandersmith is famous for acting on a normally empty stage with few if any props, right here scenic clothier Caitlin McLeod ensconces Wandachristine in Diane’s completely found out an apartment, which Paul Deziel’s lush projections rework into other locations—a avenue nook, a neighborhood bar, different people’s apartments—whilst now not obscuring it totally under a flood of pix and phrases pulled from Orlandersmith’s poems. Extending the production’s over articulation, Parson ends each monolog with a full blackout, after which Wandachristine exits and reenters in a new dress.
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And that over articulation continues in Wanda Christie’s method to her characters, all of whom are given one-of-a-kind gestures, speech cadences, and accents. Rather than monologs, she gives us acting scenes. At times Beauty’s Daughter is much less a show than a showcase.
But that problem is, to a point, inherent in Orlandersmith’s text, which trips via several blocks of Harlem, as well as several many years of Diane’s lifestyles, without getting an awful lot of anywhere. Orlandersmith has an eager eye for the telling details of desperation (Anthony, a young man trapped in a debilitatingly unhappy marriage, makes love simplest by gambling his saxophone). Still, the information doesn’t accumulate into something large than themselves. Instead, we meet a handful of people ensnared in an impoverished community for the maximum component, see their flaws, fears, and humanity, and pass them on.
Still, those encounters may be pretty affecting, no longer best because the sector these characters inhabit seems calculated to restrict their options and diminish their hopes. Still, due to the fact, Diane usually struggles to make peace along with her past. And whilst we meet her spiteful, envious, alcoholic mom, Beauty, who insists her daughter is, amongst different things, a failure, it’s smooth to recognize why. Ultimately Diane concludes that, except an elderly neighbor who gives her old blues 78s, humanity is “a fucking collective mass of parasites who use guilt to position each different down.”
At instances, it’s almost too much to witness, which satirically makes the night’s showcase-like fashion mainly effective, at the least in components. This Beauty isn’t a smart monologist’s innovative invocation; she is here earlier than us, completely and inevitably. And she dawdles and dallies, occupying each inch of the theater, attempting our patience, musing over the ruins of her existence, insisting on claiming the degree for no different cause than to run her daughter down. It’s harrowing to see her delivered absolutely to life. If Wandachristine performed all her characters with the same commitment, the night could be devastating. But on commencing nighttime, she had the handiest half firmly underneath her belt.
Throughout the show, Orlandersmith lingers over Diane’s literary bent, imagining the aspect that separates Diane from the hookers on her old block are the books in her room. Poetry may additionally certainly were Orlandersmith’s ticket to a better life. However, it is disappointing that she envisions the humanities—namely literature and music—as the simplest path out of Harlem, or toward any semblance of happiness, for everybody. It’s a blinkered approach that now not simplest imagines Harlem as an area necessarily deserted but dooms its nonartistic population to perpetual distress.