While it’s facile to assume that writers should stick with what they know, there’s still no question that writing about someone else’s experience is a dicey proposition. That’s especially true if the goal is to convey some kind of social message about a wincingly uncomfortable issue. At best, you risk sounding like an interloper; at worst, you’re dubbed a cultural tourist.
Thus, Pulitzer Prize nominee Dael Orlandersmith stacked all the cards against herself in tackling Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men, a play about the cycle of male-on-male abuse in working-class environments. To Orlandersmith, it’s a pan-cultural problem that stems from poverty, addiction, and learned behaviors: The men in her play — all played by Orlandersmith — endure drubbings from their fathers and grow up to be abusers themselves. They come from disparate backgrounds but their lives bear common threads, and they’re all beholden to the same fate. To say that free will is overrated would be a perverse understatement. In the world that Orlandersmith creates, there’s really no escape hatch.
Thus her play, directed by Chay Yew, is both brilliant and profoundly unpleasant. It’s also brazen. For a 53-year-old African-American woman to assume that, by some alchemy, she can inhabit the bodies of a young Latino prostitute, an Irish playboy, a pedophile, an aging janitor in Central Park, a “trick baby,” and an eleven-year-old group-home resident is certainly a tall order, and Orlandersmith made it more challenging by opting for a supremely ascetic setup. Her only prop is a chair.
But Orlandersmith is, in many ways, a maximalist. Yew, set designer Daniel Ostling, and lighting designer Ben Stanton gave her a gorgeously low-tech world to inhabit, and she easily makes it her own. Moreover, the playwright becomes each character with gusto, using her large, powerful frame to become the alcoholic father who throws his child down a flight of stairs, or the mother who attempts to seduce her eleven-year-old son, or the old man with a limp who spends his days making shrewd observations about the world. In several scenes she uses the chair as a victim, advancing toward it the way a school bully might lurch toward a smaller child. Sometimes it’s her sweetheart. In one scene she and the chair are silhouetted on the wall at stage right, in a way that dramatically distorts their figures — hers is amplified; the chair is made small and meek. She’s acting the part of a John at Playland, preying on a twelve-year-old kid.
Orlandersmith can also look small and pliant merely by hunching her shoulders or redistributing her weight, and she does that convincingly throughout the ninety-minute performance, which consists of several interwoven stories, all with similar themes. The material is heavy and often painful, riddled as it is with stories of sodomy, brutality, drug use, exploitation, neglect, and child rape. Orlandersmith is as great a writer as she is a character actor — “unsparing” is the adjective most often used to describe her work, and there’s probably no way to avoid it — and she hits high notes throughout. There are moments when the characters use language that seems a little too elevated to be believed, but the points at which the playwright completely loses herself in another person’s story balances them. Her portrayal of the Irishman Ian, who escapes an alcoholic father only to be haunted by him as an adult, is mesmerizing.
If you can stomach the material — and it is, at points, quite indigestible — then Orlandersmith’s performance pays dividends. In fact, her shortcomings are mainly structural. Her storylines are occasionally hard to parse because they parallel each other so closely. That’s probably intentional, since one of the play’s underlying ideas is that abuse is both a cyclical and a cross-cultural phenomenon. But it also makes it easy to confuse the characters or jumble their narratives, even with the aid of a video monitor. At points, an audience member might get the impression that she’s actually listening to one long story. There’s also the problem of ceaseless, merciless bludgeoning: The Billie Holiday record, the references to Dickens, and the lighter tales about social advancement are all calculated to shore up the black-and-blue theme.
Black n Blue is billed as a world premiere at Berkeley Rep, which means it will ultimately go on to other theaters. In the interim, both Orlandersmith and Yew might consider tweaking parts of the script. A couple stories could be cut in the interest of sharpening the material and giving the play a more defined contour. Anyone who’s endured a violent experience in real life knows that it doesn’t happen all at once — there are moments of intensity, followed by moments of quiet, and there’s a point where everything comes to a head. Orlandersmith certainly knows that, too, but she could convey it more effectively. Right now, Black n Blue is a searing and insightful play. It’s one draft away from being a superlative play.