For a man who says things like “I operate in a theater of choking,” New York playwright/director Robert O’Hara makes his difficult, risky work go down pretty smoothly. In the case of Brave Brood, now in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley’s Transparent Theater, it’s difficult to isolate whether that throat-coating slipperiness is a result of limber writing, exciting staging, or great acting. What’s certain is that this extended meditation on family, responsibility, and the myriad ways American society fails its most vulnerable members — the second part of a time-tripping trilogy that begins with Insurrection: Holding History and ends with -14: An American Ma(u)l — isn’t like anything else going right now. While being interviewed by the Trib‘s Chad Jones last July at a Transparent open house, O’Hara said of his plays that “if you pay your money and sit down, you had better be here for the ride,” and the proof is in the direct, raw, and subversively humorous dialogue of Brave Brood — a ride full of drops, hills, and switchbacks that easily deposits the breathless audience at a surprising, chilling conclusion.
Brood calls upon the audience to make common cause with characters society marginalizes and to see heroism in unlikely places. In a disjointed narrative that shuttles through time in such a way that everything might be happening at once, a nameless lawyer calls to task Ms. Anne, a seemingly prim, rigid psychotherapist, for her adoption of a handful of homeless prostitutes. Anne has taken these four — a mother/ daughter team, a young man of limited development, and a woman fighting an abusive partner for the custody of her children — into her home, where she feeds, clothes, educates, and analyzes them. The problem is that they’re all still working at the world’s oldest profession, effectively transforming her home into a brothel. Ms. Anne banks their income toward the day when they can start their own “legitimate” businesses, and they look on her as their savior. It’s an unorthodox solution, but one that starts to make sense as one by one the characters face off with the lawyer. “Don’t you go picking on Ms. Anne,” shouts man-child Baltimore at one point, “she hasn’t done anything wrong by me.”
An uncomfortable question arises: Since this seems to be working, it’s more realistic than the law, and eventually these folks will be established and on their own, why not? The “why not” that soon emerges is that even the force of Anne’s will isn’t enough to keep the demons of addiction and greed from tearing apart the delicate web of affection and affirmations she has woven. It swiftly becomes clear that something terrible has happened, the nature of which isn’t revealed until the very end. Our nameless lawyer (played with brisk tension by Alex Moggridge) is there to ferret it out, regardless of what fragile structures are destroyed in the process.
Performed without intermission, Brood grabs the audience at the very beginning as Marie (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) chews out her man in an unbroken string of expletives while Baltimore performs an elaborate blow job on an unseen customer and crack-addicted Shonell watches passively as her mother, Barbara, is thrown from a car. “Did he pay you before he threw you out of the car?” she asks. Not family entertainment by any stretch of the imagination, but a story about family connections, both the ones we come with and the ones we build. Ms. Anne has created a family where none existed, perhaps to replace the one she’s lost. Marie and Shonell are the only “real” family, but that bond plays out in an unexpected way; we do not expect mothers to support their daughters going into the family business when that business is prostitution, and their discussions about the fate of Shonell’s baby (born premature and sick) stand in stark contrast to the idealized visions of motherhood — and grandmotherhood — so prevalent in movies and television. These are difficult people to feel good about, yet easy to love: Shonell with the brash vulnerability of any teenager (“Ain’t nothing special about rough,” she says at one point, easily indicting the kind of liberal guilt that attempts to ennoble the struggle of the dispossessed), Barbara trying to hide her compassion under years of the street. And their truths are not limited to their experience: They ask the same questions that anyone trying to raise children asks, have the same doubts about their own abilities.
Equally surprising is that the most innocent member of the little family is delicate Baltimore (a wincingly truthful and sweet Ben Sharples), whose skills are so graphically illustrated at the play’s opening. Bedeviled by bogeymen (all played with gleeful cruelty by Ryan Montgomery, who also plays Shonell’s crack-addled boyfriend), doing his best to hold on to the “inner sparkle” Ms. Anne has armed him with, Baltimore is the character we most want to protect. Yes, he’s a hustler, but somehow that word isn’t big enough, it can’t encompass a little boy who doesn’t like girls “that way,” trapped in the lithe, pliant body of an attractive man. Baltimore’s journey is also, oddly enough, the most redemptive: Eventually he has to confront his bogeys in the person of nasty, gun-waving Jimmy. While his answer wouldn’t pass muster with the I’m OK, You’re OK crowd, it’s the one that makes sense under the circumstances.
Even in such an outstanding, tightly-knit cast, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe’s perfor-mance stands out for its sure-handedness and commitment. From her opening monologue, which captures all those public moments we turn away from where one stranger is heaping abuse on another, to the moment where she takes off her shoes and earrings in preparation to kick one sorry bastard’s ass, Cooper navigates her character with exactly the right amount of fire. But it’s the moment in which she talks about her kids that brought the house down the night I went; it’s a monologue that an actor could too easily blow, and Cooper-Anifowoshe handles it effortlessly.
Lisa Clark and Anne Goldschmidt’s scenic design and painting make clever use of Transparent’s space. A small cutout at the front of the apron provides a sort of basement for Baltimore’s visits with his bogeys, and the back of the stage has some unexpected features that transform the abstract gray painting/sculpture into a house that shifts in and out of focus in time with David Molina’s jarring sound effects and Colin Young’s evocative lighting. The costuming is on target, from Ms. Anne’s sensible slacks to Marie’s naughty nurse get-up, complete with red hose and shoes.
Brave Brood isn’t just a wild ride, it’s a blistering and necessary attack on the inherent weakness of law that lets batterers get custody of their kids and doesn’t protect prostitutes against police abuse, the limitations of guilt (“You are emasculated by your youth,” Ms. Anne storms against her inquisitor, as she explains that eventually she “woke up” to what was going on around her, to which he responds “Send a check. Serve some soup. Donate a dress”), and a call to examine the prejudices and preconceptions we hold most dear, what Gurdjieff might have called treading on our most sacred corns. Yet in O’Hara’s hands, it’s also engaging, invigorating, and ultimately nourishing — an essential medicine that’s easy to take.