How can one person on a small stage build a whole little world?
Take the psychologically astute poetry of Dael Orlandersmith, set it to music, project video onto it, have director Ron OJ Parson mix them together and center them all on the magnetic actress Wandachristine, and you’re transported to East Harlem, 1995.
Structured as a series of monologues delivered by a poet, Diane, and five of the people closest to her, Orlandersmith’s one-woman show plumbs the nightmares of a highly intelligent, but twisted, psyche in one of the roughest parts of America, with occasional flashes of grace woven in. It takes a performer of uncommon wisdom and energy to pull off, but Wandachristine is at the top of her game here, as are a slew of designers whose work blends seamlessly with hers.
American Blues Theater Maps a Spiritual Crises
“Love,” Diane cackles when we first see her. She’s no fool. Sex is awesome, yes, but love? “Going down,” as falling in love is more accurately called? No thanks, and that goes for romantic love and every other kind. But then there was that one time, she adds, not entirely ruefully, when she fell in love so much she left East Harlem, infamously the roughest part of New York City when it was at its nadir, to go with a longtime boyfriend to his home in Dublin. There, she was humiliated and returned to Manhattan more bitter than ever, but she has a release in dancing. As for those around her, we see how her life tangles with theirs, sometimes resulting in mutual hurt, sometimes for the better. But as we cycle through Diane’s friends, we draw closer to her mother, Beauty, the black hole at the center of her life and the person she most fears and sees as her most likely future self.
Wandachristine’s transformations are all the more convincing for leaving just a bit of artifice. Michael Alan Stein has provided her with some simple costume pieces to switch between, but the difference between her characters is mainly in her voice and posture. Those characters include Papo, a Puerto Rican teenager who shares her love of poetry but not her sense of responsibility, Louie, a musician who was her surrogate father but is now blind and addicted to drugs, her other adopted parent, Mary, who is simple and loving while Beauty is ruthless and narcissistic, and Anthony, a brash and desperate Italian-American she knew only for a few hours. Each is a fully-drawn portrait with their own beat, which they acquired from their own favorite artists and use as a means of connecting with Diane. But although they each have a self-contained story, it is through their interplay that we come to understand Diane’s struggle better, leading to her hair-raising meltdown when we revisit her.
Design and Human Presence Working in Concert
Crucially, Wandachristine makes Diane a very likeable figure, even when she’s at her snarkiest and most neurotic and cruel. She also has a very talented tech crew to help her maintain the pieces’ various tempos. Interspersed among the monologues are excerpts from Orlandersmith’s poetry, read by Wandachristine, which introduce each character by focusing on their earthy, bloody physicality. The projections, designed by Paul Deziel, use platelets as a recurring motif, and the original music by Eric Backus sets the mood. This play lingers in some very dark places to earn its bright moments, and the major takeaway is how much of a toll high-stress environments take on a person physically, mentally, and spiritually. But it’s also a tribute to the liberating power art, and particularly song and poetry, has in all sorts of peoples’ lives.
Now thru August 5
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm
Run time is ninety minutes
All photos by Michael Brosilow
1225 W Belmont Ave
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.