7:04 PM CDT, October 8, 2012
It is hard to immediately think of a theater piece as tough to watch as Dael Orlandersmith's new solo show "Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men," a relentlessly intense and deeply disturbing charting of the broad swath cut when adults abuse young men, whether they do so physically, sexually or through sheer, selfish neglect.
Males — "at-risk males" does not even begin to describe the men on display here — are the focus of Orlandersmith's interlocking 85 minutes of original oral history, which opened Sunday night at the Goodman Theatre, shocking its audience to silence throughout. Orlandersmith certainly details the nature of what made these boys (all five are New Yorkers, but of disparate origin) black and blue, in graphic detail. But she's mostly interested in what happens to these young men as they become adults themselves. The question of the night, really, is whether such victims are able to throw off those bruises of the body and soul and react to the world around them with functional kindness or, and here's where the piece really gets agonizing, whether they are condemned to continue an intergenerational cycle of violence against those who need their protection.
None of this is easy to sit through — and I say this as an inured one, not easily disturbed in the theater. But there is one particular character here, whom Orlandersmith and her director, Chay Yew, introduce by having the performer sit in a chair (Orlandersmith portrays all the characters) with her back to most of the audience. For the first few minutes, you think he is to be a warm presence, a respite from all the bruising. But he turns out to be a sexual predator, replete with the self-justifications that such creatures invariably ooze. It is at once a skin-crawling few minutes and as clear a depiction of how these people groom their prey, and why they are so good at evading detection, as I ever have seen.
What Orlandersmith, hitherto best known for the folksier "Stoop Stories," is doing on the Goodman stage does not match the reports of this show that came from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in May and was reviewed by some critics as florid and tentative. Clearly, much work has been done by Orlandersmith and Yew since May. Tentative is the last word you'd use to describe what Orlandersmith is doing here. On the contrary, what she is doing is ferociously determined and as clear as can be. This is a no-nonsense actress strikingly able to play men. Actually, that's one of the most compelling elements of the show. Her femininity allows Orlandersmith some remove, but she still conveys that unique male brand of pride, defiance and a tendency to lash out. Yet she takes some pain to point out this is not an exclusively male issue; one of Orlandersmith's abusers is a woman abusing her own son, who finds it tough to be believed because he is pointing a finger at his mother.
There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that the piece does not have enough context and analysis to justify unleashing (some might say wallowing in) these rough personal histories, in such graphic detail, on an unsuspecting audience. I see the line of thinking but don't really buy it myself — these are very difficult topics to bring up in the theater, as in life, and there is only one way to do so, which is directly and honestly, letting the aesthetic, political, critical and box-office chips fall where they may. That is what Orlandersmith is doing, and it is gutsy, admirable and the only way to make such a piece work.
There is only one undeniably false note in "Black and Blue" really, although it comes at a pivotal moment, the climax of the show. One has the sense that someone has told Orlandersmith she needs to end on a note of optimism, so the piece concludes with a closing, cliched, little monologue, the first extended piece not in the voice of one of Orlandersmith's bruised men, about overcoming these things that happen to some of us as young people and reaching for the light, walking one's own walk, that kind of thing. The sentiments within this final couple of minutes are all very well, but these familiar notes feels grafted onto this unstinting piece with all the subtlety and originality of a paper-thin bandage over a deep, personal wound.
The piece does not need such an ending; Orlandersmith should stay with her boys. And, if no happy ending presents itself there, it's perfectly legitimate in the docudrama form just to unleash pain and let it land on people who might, at some times in their lives, be able to do something about it.
When: Through Oct. 28
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $27-$45 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org