Tori Sampson (Cadillac Crew) has floated out before us a modern African fable, with a strong intent on starting a conversation about what ‘pretty‘ is and what ‘pretty‘ does. Sampson writes most poetically in the press release this telling statement: “I wanted to use a folktale in a contemporary way to interrogate why, for instance, Viola Davis isn’t ‘classically beautiful’ and why the country had such a hard time aesthetically with Michelle Obama. The first time I saw her I was awestruck; this was a beautiful black woman whose hair is like mine; her skin is like mine; and to see the attributes of her that I really admired, to see the media tear them down, really troubles me. I wanted to examine the impact of colonization on Black beauty, and to ask what is Black beauty, in a way that speaks specifically to Black women.” She’s done so in the most inventive and dynamic way, thrusting the conceptualization up front and center, demanding us to pay attention to the dilemma and the dichotomy. In its structural simplicity, as any good fable does, the point and themes are clear from pretty much the beginning, and as staged by designer Louisa Thompson (PH’s This) on a bright light backdrop and shiny surfaced circle, beaming for all to see, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka gets a solidly professional treatment by director Leah C. Gardiner (Union Square’s Wit) polishing the one-note as hard as can be. With flashy fun costuming by Ded Ayite (PH’s Mankind), dazzling lighting by Matt Frey (PH’s The Profane) and great original music with some shaky off-balanced sound designed by Ian Scot (Yale Rep’s Mary Jane), Pretty.. polishes its surface into a fun serviceable show about how beauty, Black beauty in particular, is seen in the world. It swims fashionable forward, well-acted and inventive in nature and design, with a passion for its own telling and worth, but somehow, like anything too beautiful and fabulous, it doesn’t really know how to let us in to its inner core, and falters just enough to get pulled under by the river’s strength and current.
But just like the heroine of this tale, she survives the dragging dynamic and strong statement, to rise up and find her footing later on. In the beginning, we are guided through the introductions of the very game and talented cast by the chorus-like flamboyant cell phone narrator, Rotimi Agbabiaka (Magic Theatre’s Sojourners) prancing and posturing to his athletic’s heart content. He loses energy and power though along the way, but for the most part, he is an enjoyable distraction, as any smart phone is these days. The smart-aleck phone is the constant companion of the statuesque beauty personified, Akim, played with deft innocence and wonder by Nike Uche Kadri (MCC’s School Girls,…). She lives a life of seclusion tucked away in her home scrubbing floors, mainly because her overly protective parents don’t trust the world to treat their beauty with respect and honor. Ma, played energetically by Maechi Aharanwa (TFANA’s The Winter’s Tale) and her Pa, portrayed with passion by Jason Bowen (Broadway’s The Play That Goes Wrong), on the other hand, love to have a whole lot of fun, dancing and partying to the joyous moves of choreographer Raja Feather Kelly (ATC’s Fireflies). But they know the danger of beauty, and try with all their might to keep her out of harms way.
We know the cloistering of Akim will fail (it always does, just ask Juliet’s mother), but there is good reason to be concerned with the likes of the haughty but terrified Massassi, played perfectly by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Yale’s The Three Sisters), her cohort the wiser Kaya, unabashedly portrayed by Phumzile Sitole (CSC’s Comedy of Errors), and the one with a tad more consciousness Adama, deftly played by Mirirai Sithole (ATC’s The Homecoming Queen) out there on the streets of Affreakah-Amirrorkah. The three claim to be their daughter’s best friends, all the while being bothered by the green wave of jealousy and envy. No one questions that Akim is the one true, perfect beauty—not even these three jealous young ladies, but with ‘friends‘ like these…., well, you know the rest. Naturally, it’s all about a boy, Kasim, played with appealing ease by Leland Fowler (Public’s Midsummer Night’s…) that pulls the plot forward into the river’s wild current. Beautifully orchestrated and delivered, the fable finds its solid footing in the middle segment, and with the Voice of the River so wildly and beautifully personified by the amazing Carla R. Stewart (PMP’s The Color Purple), I’d gladly ask for permission to wade into those waters. Stewart captivates us all when she steps out, mic in hand, inventively taking the spotlight out into the crowd to dazzle us with her powerful tide. It’s a gloriously fun moment, but in the whole proceeding, the floating formulations do little to focus the flavors.
A lot of plays can be summed up in a few sentences, in their theme and focus. And it’s clear that Sampson has an important topic to pull out of the wild waters of the river and present to us. She fills us up to the brim with live music and dance, engulfing the epic Nigerian Folktale with an explosive and inventive framework to float on. Its structure is tight and clear, but the bright focus too pinpointed to hold our attention for 100 minutes. Her point is made solidly during the one-act play’s middle and most dynamic bit of storytelling but it is in the final scene where the major dynamic rises out of the chaos, but only because of the magnetic persona of Crowe-Legacy who puts it all together poetically. She hypnotically engages us easily with very little, and without her that final overly long montage, establishing the play’s cultural reason to exist on ideals that exist forever out of reach, keeps us treading water for a time that seems endless. Like that cellphone who fades away, my battery almost did the same. If Pretty Hurts is far too solid in the middle to leave us high and dry like that.
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