First in a hulking gorilla suit, then in a mannish tux, Marlene Dietrich kept her audience rapt during the iconic cabaret number in 1932's Blonde Venus. Although the scene is faintly cheery (the hassled mom is finally making some cash!), the audience's fascination with Dietrich's animalistic gender-bending is unsettling.
When the two magnetic protagonists of Lenelle Moïse's friendship drama, Expatriate, move from New York to Paris and name their cabaret act Black Venus, it's tempting to think of Dietrich. As Claudie (Moïse) and Alphine (Kara Mosely) become African-American expat starlets, journalists tag Alphine as "feline" and Claudie as "masculine"—it's the exotic/erotic problem revisited. Moving from dreamy flashbacks to live cabaret, Expatriate bravely tackles big themes (sexuality, race, fame, drugs, death, art), but occasionally turns rambling and preachy.The show does its best work with improbable material: Claudie's haunting, cocaine-themed elegy and Alphine's coked-up interview on French TV are absorbing. Backed by loop machines, Moïse and Mosely (both indefatigable) showcase their gorgeous voices as they follow the emotional arc that director Tamilla Woodward cultivates. The sentiments hit home, but Expatriate ultimately fumbles with plot: Black Venus's fame is improbable, the move to France seems contrived, and Claudie's painfully evident sapphism is (sadly) addressed much too late.