Berkeley Rep goes for the jugular in this unrelenting, disturbing, graphic look at abuse. We may not like what we see in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men (and at times, it’s difficult to watch), but the presentation is so poetic and features an unflinchingly authentic, raw backbone, that we can’t help but gawk, hauntingly spellbound by the bleak material. Later, as I was milling around the lobby of Berkeley Rep’s Thrust stage on opening night, I overheard a “looking into the abyss” reference more than once. In the program’s prologue, artistic director Tony Taccone refers to “speaking the unspeakable.” Indeed, if theater is to provoke us, jolt us out of our comfortable everyday frames, then this play — a linguistic installation — is proof positive of its ability to sear our minds, days after the curtain closes.
Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, who magically manages to find passion, humor, warmth in the proceedings, the 90-minute solo performance interweaves the fictitious stories of a group of boys and men, all of whom have been sexually abused. With merely a chair, stark lighting (bespoke warehouse hanging pendants), and scant musical bits, Dael, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist for Yellowman, takes us into some dark places where words cut deep, and actions more so. She commands the stage with ease, transforming from Flaco, a small boy whose mother molests him (while his father denies the possibility, “that’s not what mothers do”) to Timmy, whose mother makes repeated visits to the bathroom, only to come out time-and-time again “sleepy.”
Orlandersmith, a larger-than-life (and intense) on-stage presence, made the decision to base the narrative on the male perspective. Astonishingly I didn’t for a second believe she was not a man or a boy in any of the scenes. Her gift is the ability to wholly absorb a character — Irish accent, physical mannerisms, verbal quirks, as the case may be — and takes us into their world, perhaps staring out, across Coney Island, seeking promise along the horizon or turning a trick in a seedy arcade somewhere in Brooklyn.
Thankfully, with the darkness comes light. So these are not necessarily wasted days. Survival is half the battle; coming out the other side doesn’t make the streets any less mean, but there is hope for the human condition yet.
— Clinton Stark (@clintonstark) June 1, 2012