You know the girl: the one so comprehensively lovely she makes all the others writhe in envy. But because the envy causes the lovely one to suffer, it only burnishes her loveliness more.
No, I don’t mean Beyoncé, though Queen B hovers like a tutelary spirit over Tori Sampson’s delicious new play “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a _________.” She’s even in the title: not the part I can’t quote, but the part about “Pretty Hurts.” That’s the name of the 2014 Beyoncé song about competition among young women and the standards of beauty designed to defeat them.
“Perfection is the disease of a nation” runs one of the lyrics.
Grafting that theme onto a West African folk tale, Ms. Sampson makes a contemporary fable about the black female body and its discontents. She also makes, in the Playwrights Horizons production that opened on Sunday under the exuberant direction of Leah C. Gardiner, an auspicious professional playwriting debut.
Her version of Beyoncé’s “nation” is the vaguely Nigerian yet also vaguely local “Affreakah-Amirrorikah”: a land of juju and yam festivals but also mean girls and upspeak. There, four 17-year-old schoolmates are too busy comparing themselves to one another, or grooming themselves for 17-year-old boys, to maintain much faith in their individual charms.
Those charms are plentiful. Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is stylish and powerful; Kaya (Phumzile Sitole) is smart and practical; Adama (Mirirai Sithole) is deep and thoughtful. But even though all are described in the script as “beautiful” with no weasel words or provisos, it is Akim (Níke Uche Kadri) who is recognized as the fairest of them all.
I don’t mean fair in the sense of skin tone; one of the pleasures of “If Pretty Hurts” is that it exists largely outside the white gaze. As part of the recent flowering on New York stages of plays that blur the boundaries of Africa and America — by authors including Jocelyn Bioh, Ngozi Anyanwu, Danai Gurira and Mfoniso Udofia — it honors its characters and its audience enough to assume the value of black lives that are only distantly mediated by Eurocentric expectations.
Which is not to say that the larger, malignant world goes completely unfelt within Ms. Sampson’s mostly benign one. Massassi does worry about the size of her behind. (She describes punching it down every night in the hope of finding it smaller by morning.) Kaya, despite instructing us not to “go on this whole voyage about a young girl self-loathing her way to mental destruction,” rates herself only “a solid six” — or a seven if she gets to show off her legs.
[What’s new onstage and off: Sign up for our Theater Update newsletter]
But Akim is such a paragon — even her breath, we are told, smells of Febreze — that her strict parents hoard her like treasure. What seems like pride or standoffishness to the others is really just obedience; she can’t take dance lessons with them or attend the school play. Even then she is gracious, having been taught by Ma (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dad (Jason Bowen) to be not just lovely in body but in spirit. “Sarcasm is a gateway attitude,” Ma tells her, “leading straight to full-blown pessimism.”
Irony alert: As is the way in such fables, it is Akim’s perfection and obedience that attract the trouble. A girl so overprotected by her parents — who have “prepared her for nothing, exempted her from everything” — does not know how to negotiate the real world in which handsome young Kasim (Leland Fowler) is drawn to her and, worse, she to him. That everyone believes Kasim to have been “chosen” for Massassi instead sets the plot in motion, as Akim starts to wander past her boundaries, geographic and also behavioral.
Ms. Sampson uses a refreshing palette of theatrical colors to fill in the story. Mixing high school comedy and magic realism, American pop and African djembe drums, she suggests a world filled with piquant specifics yet one that remains, in essence, universal in place and time. The conflicts among adolescents, like those between parents and children, have never not been a story.
And though the inventiveness does not always pay off — the play’s Chorus is a cellphone represented in whimsical human form by Rotimi Agbabiaka — Ms. Gardiner’s well-acted and swift-moving production usually picks up the slack. On a spare, circular stage bordered by prismatic plasticwalls (the set design is by Louisa Thompson), she speeds the cast from scene to scene, providing only as much visual information as necessary.
Still, with the help of Dede Ayite’s terrific costumes, we are never confused or disoriented; when Akim’s escape from her family brings her (and the others) to a fateful river, Ms. Gardiner works wonders with just scarves and bodies and the simplest of stage tricks.
Those bodies are choreographed, in that scene and in two thrilling musical sequences, by Raja Feather Kelly, bringing lift to the narrative without dispersing it. One of the numbers, a gospel-inflected barnburner in fact called “Lifted,” with lyrics by Ms. Sampson and music by Ian Scot, would be reason enough to see the show. Its beguiling refrain, led by Carla R. Stewart as the stunning Voice of the River, is: “I’m reaching for my beautiful.”
So is the play, which ends with a powerful coda that grounds its unfailing pep and familiar satire in old-fashioned (and exceptionally executed) naturalism. What was occasionally manic and overbright in the previous 100 minutes is toned so far down in the final 10 as to suggest, without words, a much subtler moral lesson.
Not that moralizing is Ms. Sampson’s point. Though she has talked about her play as being influenced by Brecht, she isn’t, on the evidence, referring to his principle of alienation, in which deliberate distancing effects prevent the audience from indulging in sentiment at the expense of instruction.
Quite the opposite: “If Pretty Hurts” is successful exactly to the extent it engages us emotionally in the moral quandary of beauty, no matter what Amirrorikah we’re looking in.
Powered by WPeMatico