Theater archives

Harlem Days


Misfits and losers: before a word is written, they’re a drama unto themselves. She chafes against her surroundings and is rebuffed. Scorned, he picks up a pistol or jabs a needle in his arm. In Dael Orlandersmith’s solo The Gimmick, a poor fat black girl from Harlem will rise triumphant. In Edwin Sánchez’s play The Road, a young gay man will die alone in a self-imposed exile. Both pieces are unsparing in their visions of the abyss, but the first is redemptive and moving, while the second is cold and disturbing.

An imposing woman of sweep and confidence, writer-performer Dael Orlandersmith fills a bare stage with a rich Harlem mosaic of gin and cigarettes, sex for sale, wasted lives, and highfalutin pretensions, seen through the eyes of smart, sensitive kids. At 10, narrator Alexis, a fat girl with a slender drunk of a ma, hangs out on the stoop with Jimmy, a shy, beat-up little boy with a talent for painting black and blue people. The Gimmick is the story of their friendship.

It opens touchingly with shy Jimmy and defiant Alexis dreaming together of being writers and artists in Paris. At 15, while Alexis devours words in the library, Jimmy paints. After they venture downtown to see the Picassos at MOMA, Alexis bravely bares her breasts. “Alexis, girl, you my muse!” he whoops joyfully, painting her exuberant curves. Soon after, Jimmy gets a gallery show, a skinny white girl in designer clothes, and lots of dope. Alexis descends to Harlem’s bottom, and almost doesn’t surface.

Orlandersmith’s narrative shifts from quasi-hip-hop patterns to swirling literary cadences. She embodies the sweetness and goofiness of these little yearning souls with appealing humor. She also depicts a formidable librarian, a scuzzy stuck-up whore, and Jimmy’s brutal dad, all with authority. But she is most masterful as the devastated Alexis, riddled with self-loathing, who, for Jimmy, submits to the very degradations she has devoted her life to escaping.

Chris Coleman’s sure direction adds dimension and beauty, creating his own painterly work. With Matthew Frey’s lighting and Scott Pask’s costume and scenic design, we see Orlandersmith, draped in shades of gray, silhouetted against a stage divided into darkness and light or bathed in a glow of gold while key words are projected against the back wall. These visual elements complement Orlandersmith’s searing honesty and passion, as she fulfills Alexis’s youthful dream: “I’m gonna be a word magician.”

While The Gimmick shows some appalling suffering, its compassion for its characters draws you in. Edwin Sánchez’s The Road, though, is tough to watch. As a drama, it’s less successful and less skillfully mounted. Yet the bitter, unsettling tale takes hold and makes you squirm.

This is the story of Ralphy, a young gay man dying of AIDS. What makes this play so discomfiting is not his impending death, but his cruel rage against his parents and the way he acts it out.

As The Road opens, Ralphy wants to watch I Love Lucy, which Mom and Dad both hate. They sweetly give in. “You’re the gay of our lives,” chirps Mom, “and that’s why you’re dying.” Ralphy whips out a pistol and shoots them dead over and over. Darn them, they won’t fall down.

It’s only Ralphy’s nightmare vision, but it expresses his rage at his parents, who will do anything for their dying son—except speak the truth. Ralphy can’t bear it. He hits the road, peppering his helpless Mom and Dad with angry letters—and final farewells. As he panhandles around the country, getting sicker and more desperate, he keeps those cards and letters coming.

Back home, Mom and Dad are driven to face hard truths—about their son, about their sexless marriage. They are decent, repressed, fallible people trying to do the right thing, grieving over Ralphy’s fate and tortured by his hatred and desertion. Eventually they discover where he is and have to make an agonizing decision: whether to seize the moment they’ve longed for and see him or obey Ralphy’s fierce ban on any contact.

As played by Ivan Davila, Ralphy is pert and mannered, showering all with black humor. Ann Chandler conveys the mother’s bewilderment and anguish with poignancy. Dennis Smith also scores points as Dad, the little gray accountant decimated by guilt and rage.

Troy Fisher’s direction does not well serve the play. He begins with a surreal style and edgy cartoon figures, but he continues this cool stance as The Road becomes more naturalistic and the characters fill out. It’s as if he wants to keep us from liking Mom and Dad—when our instincts are to sympathize with them. The bare-bones production only exacerbates this uncomfortable tension. It thrusts the bruising text naked in our faces—without mercy.