Hell and Harlem

A stunning one-woman show about dreams and their destruction.

SOME STORIES HAVE never been told and need to be told. Some can only be told with a new twist to make them fresh again. And some need to be told repeatedly, so that we can return to them to get our questions answered.

The Gimmick

A Contemporary Theater

ends August 15

Though there's little new in Dael Orlandersmith's new one-woman show The Gimmick, what she brings to this story makes it seem newly minted. It's so simple, yet so powerfully told that it makes most other pieces of theater seem to be striving for novelty of effect. Theater, film, and TV are filled (like too much of real life) with abusive parents, but the indisputable power of the unjust is rarely expressed with the intensity that this actress gives it. There's also no shortage of stories about artists destroyed by a combination of environment, destructive family life, and drugs. But Orlandersmith's authority as a performer and her emotional passion, together with her brilliant eye for detail as a writer, make the well-known material harrowing and surprising.

It's small wonder, seeing how heartfelt her writing and performance are, that the playwright's been repeatedly asked if the material is autobiographical. Factually speaking, it isn't. But in a deeper sense, in the manner that all significant art is infused with the perceived truth of the artist, it most certainly is.

Jimmy and Alexis are two lifelong friends who met as children on the streets of Harlem, and the story begins with Alexis receiving the news of Jimmy's death. As Alexis thinks back upon the friendship and love she felt for Jimmy, she begins an exploration of what saves the human soul in situations where there seems to be no hope. Both children grow up in single-parent homes, her mother an alcoholic, his father a doped-up would-be pimp, and both almost immediately recognize artistic ambition in each other. He wants to paint, and his early cartoon drawings soon turn to a worship of Picasso and Modigliani. She wants to write, and her early introduction to James Baldwin sets her sights on a life outside the ghetto. But while she finds the strength and support to pull herself out, Jimmy is destroyed, partly through his failure to master the anger that makes his best work sort of a "Harlem's Mnch."

WHILE THE TWO characters in Orlandersmith's dark little fable begin as children, there's never any question that the artist is telling her story from an adult's perspective. ("We were always old," she says at one point.) Her quick little character portrayals, from a white salesclerk to an elderly black librarian, are incisive and immediately recognizable. But she's unwilling to linger over them, as her own formidable voice and presence carries so much power. As she performs, the actress seems able to grow and shrink herself before our very eyes, and her questing gaze relentlessly seeks out the attention of every member of the audience.

Alexis' personal angel is the local librarian Mrs. Innes, who introduces her to the writings of James Baldwin and whose insistence on her writing is fierce. "I will force words down your throat," she says when she visits the troubled teenager at home. Her authenticity is contrasted to the "gimmick" of the title, a loose-flowing term for an attitude, a trick, a mask to fool people so you can get ahead. It's the way that everyone in Alexis' world survives: her mother with the bottle, the neighborhood bad girl Tootie through drugs and sex, and—tragically—her friend Jimmy, who begins to use drugs to numb his unhappiness instead of art to express it. But when Alexis is finally able to discover her own "gimmick," the power to "invent herself" (to use James Baldwin's phrase) through words, she's able to escape her life and realize her dream.

It's rare that an actress will write herself such strong material and rarer still that Seattleites get a chance to experience it. Although the subject matter is almost relentlessly dark, it's just as committed to telling about life they way it is. This Gimmick's the real thing.

 
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