In the wildly popular video game Grand Theft Auto III: Liberty City, you increase your score by bludgeoning prostitutes, committing carjackings, and ramming pedestrians. But the game does not award points for staging a solo show about your childhood in that same benighted neighborhood.
Console yourself. A one-woman piece about that Miami district may not win you GTA, but it just might win over Off-Broadway audiences. Witness the standing ovation that Liberty City received after a recent New York Theatre Workshop performance. A definitive example of the solo show, Liberty City suffers from some of the genre’s familiarity, but ably displays the ample talents of performer April Yvette Thompson. Written by Thompson and director Jessica Blank, the show follows Thompson’s family from the years before her birth to the 1980 Liberty City riots. Her father, a political activist, tried to improve the area, only to see his efforts and his marriage fail.
Thompson observes Liberty City’s change from a flourishing African-American community to what a London paper described in 1980 as “the holiday murder capital of the world.” As she glides around Antje Ellermann’s drab set—a conflation of domestic interior and derelict cityscape—Thompson becomes her parents, various aunties, and younger versions of herself. She evokes her characters straightforwardly, delineating them with precise changes in accent, tone, and bearing.
Though director Blank relies on distracting slides and a few unsubtle sound cues, she helps Thompson tell her story cleanly, favoring narrative over emotive excess. Thompson describes unpleasant events—a relative’s drug addiction, her parents’ divorce, the violence of the riots she witnessed—but never exploits them for shock or sympathy. Rather, through a careful choice of language and use of detail, she offers a group portrait of a family united in their excellent intentions, their terrible mistakes, and their stubborn persistence.
April learns this persistence young. At six years old, she visits the Caribbean island of Eleuthera and stops at the site where slaves—some of them her own ancestors—were chained to bare rock. Her father, in a questionable bout of parenting, locks his daughter into those same shackles. “I closed my eyes,” remembers Thompson. “I saw the faces of these amazing people that survived. And back at home, when people started trying to stop my dad, it just gave my family something that we had to survive. Together. With that long line of survivors standing right behind us.”
Thompson focuses closely on her family, her stories touching eloquently on uncomfortable aspects of race, politics, community building, and the legacies of the ’60s movements. At Soho Playhouse, Debra Ehrhardt’s Jamaica, Farewell, another one-woman show, considers matters far less thorny. Though Ehrhardt begins and ends the play asking herself, “What do I want?” the query pertains to a Starbucks order.
Jamaica, Farewell tells the improbable but apparently true tale of how 17-year-old Ehrhardt schemed herself out of Jamaica to begin a new life in the United States. The story begins with a besotted CIA agent and a bowl of goat-testicle soup and will involve a whorehouse, the devil, sugarcane, ganja, and yet more goats before it concludes.
Ehrhardt is merely adequate as a writer. She tends to generalize, as in her summary of the ’70s revolution: “Jamaica, the blue emerald of the Caribbean, the island paradise, is now a place of terror and instability.” Nor does she impress as an actress: Her characters seem interchangeable; her attempts at mime appall. For all that, though, she’s an immensely likable performer, charming audiences with her bouncy manner and ready smile.
Even after two decades here, Ehrhardt can’t bring herself to make any criticism or analysis of the U.S. She still treats it as a promised land, concluding her performance clutching a java-chip frappuccino and crowing: “This is America. I can have whatever I want!” Some residents of Liberty City might beg to differ.