As a performer, Dael Orlandersmith, who wrote and starred in the Obie-winning 1995 one-person show Beauty's Daughter, is pure empathic gravitas. Her chopping-block physique, orotund voice, and stately bearing give her a monumental presence, while her uncanny ability to conjure exquisitely damaged and pathetic characters lends a disarming warmth to everything she does. And she captivates through the most modest of means; a slight shift of her head, lowering of her voice, or adjustment of her posture is all she needs to transform convincingly from one persona to another.
Chicago's Wandachristine, who performs Beauty's Daughter in American Blues Theater's current revival, is in many ways Orlandersmith's polar opposite. She's lithe and unassuming. Nothing about her intimidates or towers. And when it comes to creating characters, she's as demonstrative as Orlandersmith is reserved.
So perhaps it's not surprising that director Ron OJ Parson has staged Beauty's Daughter in a bracing, if not entirely successful, anti-Orlandersmith style. The 90-minute show, made up of monologues and poems, is a carefully curated gallery of late 20th-century Harlem denizens, from heroin-addled former blues man Blind Louie to aspiring novelist and small-time dope dealer Papo to elderly starlet once-was Mary Askew. Each desperately needs something from tough-as-nails poet Diane, who's fled Harlem to pursue literary ambitions and now acts as the audience's tour guide through her former neighborhood. While Orlandersmith is famous for appearing on a mostly empty stage with few if any props, here scenic designer Caitlin McLeod ensconces Wandachristine in Diane's fully realized apartment, which Paul Deziel's lush projections transform into other locations—a street corner, a neighborhood bar, other people's apartments—when not obscuring it entirely under a flood of images and words pulled from Orlandersmith's poems. Extending the production's overarticulation, Parson ends each monologue with a full blackout, after which Wandachristine exits and reenters in a new costume.
And that overarticulation continues in Wandachristine's approach to her characters, all of whom are given distinctive gestures, speech cadences, and accents. Rather than monologues, she gives us acting scenes. At times Beauty's Daughter is less a show than a showcase.
But that problem is, to a degree, inherent in Orlandersmith's text, which journeys through several blocks of Harlem, as well as several decades of Diane's life, without getting much of anywhere. Orlandersmith has a keen eye for the telling details of desperation (Anthony, a young man trapped in a debilitatingly unhappy marriage, makes love only by playing his saxophone), but the details don't accumulate into anything larger than themselves. For the most part we meet a handful of people ensnared in an impoverished neighborhood, see their flaws, fears, and humanity, and move on.
Still, those encounters can be quite affecting, not only because the world these characters inhabit seems calculated to limit their options and diminish their hopes, but because Diane continually struggles to make peace with her past. And when we meet her spiteful, resentful, alcoholic mother, Beauty, who insists her daughter is, among other things, a failure, it's easy to understand why. Ultimately Diane concludes that, with the exception of an elderly neighbor who gives her old blues 78s, humanity is "a fucking collective mass of parasites who use guilt to put each other down."
At times it's almost too much to witness, which ironically makes the evening's showcaselike style particularly effective, at least in parts. This Beauty isn't a clever monologist's ingenious invocation; she is here before us, fully and unavoidably. And she dawdles and dallies, occupying every inch of the theater, trying our patience, musing over the ruins of her life, insisting on claiming the stage for no other reason than to run her daughter down. It's harrowing to see her brought fully to life. If Wandachristine performed all her characters with equal commitment, the evening would be devastating. But on opening night she had only half firmly under her belt.
Throughout the show, Orlandersmith lingers over Diane's literary bent, imagining the thing that separates Diane from the hookers on her old block are the books in her room. Poetry may indeed have been Orlandersmith's ticket to a better life, but it's disappointing that she envisions the arts—namely literature and music—as the only route out of Harlem, or toward any semblance of happiness, for anyone. It's a blinkered approach that not only imagines Harlem as a place necessarily to be abandoned, but dooms its nonartistic inhabitants to perpetual misery. v