Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men
Dael Orlandersmith is a weaver of terrible tales, and our confusing reaction is that you wish they were true. Not that you would want the abuse, pedophilia, and incest depicted among a swath of characters to have been inflicted on anybody, but since this collection of monologues so vividly presented by Orlandersmith is billed as fiction, you have to wonder about the purpose of concocting such cruel and vile tales. If there existed a charge of crimes against fictional characters, Orlandersmith would risk arrest with Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men.
This is not to say that Orlandersmith is anything but a talented writer and performer, nor that the circumstances she creates for the characters haven’t been extracted from a reality that the playwright-performer may be versed in. But unlike Anna Deveare Smith, who builds her performance pieces from actual interviews centering on a specific topic, Orlandersmith creates the words and the worlds she inhabits. With that added responsibility comes the added flexibility to set a course that could lead to an amalgamating conclusion to justify the small and large atrocities depicted. But only a few platitudinous sunshine-y words are tossed our way to give some solace and connection after 95 minutes of human misery.
There are meaningful themes that do develop from the stories of several characters as Orlandersmith returns periodically to their narratives. That children of abuse often become abusers themselves is a familiar family-studies construct, and it is sharply realized in a couple of the running stories. But a stand-alone monologue delivered by a child molester is structured to lull us in before adolescent anal blood starts flowing, and the character ends his apologia with the statement, "I was born this way," awkwardly echoing a current gay-rights slogan. Other characters’ travails can be even more grotesque than this, but no spoiler alerts will be needed here.
Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Yellowman, is a black woman of ample size and multi-hued braided hair. But her imposing visage seemingly morphs into male characters of different ages, races, and backgrounds as vocal delivery, body language, evocative writing, and Chay Yew’s unobtrusive direction let our imaginations handle most visual disconnects between actor and her characters. It’s a tour de force performance, to be sure, and can illuminate recesses of human behavior. But in the end, we are left behind without a lifeline in the swamp to which Orlandersmith has lured us.
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men will run through June 24 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.