Ahandsome woman with gilded dreadlocks, writer-actress Dael Orlandersmith is a commanding physical presence on Long Wharf Theater’s intimate Stage II as she performs her partly autobiographical memory monologue of hope and despair in Harlem. Pouring out torrents of coruscating words, she progresses from a childhood in the lower depths of the drug-ridden ghetto to adulthood in Paris via several no-holds-barred crescendos of anger and futility. There are powerful moments in “The Gimmick,” but there are also self-consciously poetic or literary ones, and as an actress Orlandersmith sometimes lacks the assured technique necessary to carry a one-woman show.
What’s more, she isn’t always able to prevent her monologue from becoming yet another go-round of what is by now virtually a dramatic cliche — the child with apparently no future who is given a rosy one with the help of a teacher (or librarian in this case), a convention that dates back to “The Corn Is Green.” “The Gimmick” just isn’t as effective a piece of theater as it aspires to be.
It begins with Orlandersmith sitting on a sofa, letter in hand, as a disembodied voice reads the letter aloud. It ends with the same letter, which we’ve come to know was from the librarian who helped save Alexis, the character Orlandersmith plays, from her apparently dismal Harlem fate.
In between she tells of how Alexis, a fat loner of a little girl scorned and laughed at by other kids, sought solace in books, writing and the friendship of another young Harlem loner, Jimmy, who aspired to be a great painter. In Harlem in 1968-73, Paris was their mutual goal. Alexis makes it. Jimmy doesn’t. He dies , in Harlem, of a drug overdose apparently supplied by his father, who also raped Alexis.
Both Alexis and Jimmy have only one parent, she a mother, he his father. Both parents are drunkards and presumably drug addicts, and both abuse their children physically and mentally. There are “no kisses, just slaps” in these kids’ lives. It’s scarcely surprising that they at first aspire to nothing more than the whitebread joy of TV’s “American Bandstand.” But then Harlem librarian Ms. Innis introduces Alexis to, among others, James Baldwin and Tolstoy and encourages her writing, and Jimmy begins to become a true artist, ultimately painting oils of a nude Alexis. The opening of Jimmy’s first art show, at which a “thin white girl” seems to have usurped overweight Alexis’ place as Jimmy’s muse, is the beginning of the end of the pair’s supportive relationship.
Orlandersmith plays all of the characters who people her monologue, relying, often skillfully, on changing her voice and gestures to encompass pre-teen boys and girls and an array of adults. She and director Jaye Austin-Williams have clearly had a thoroughly supportive working relationship, and “The Gimmick” is by no means a waste of anyone’s time. But it doesn’t hold together as a one-woman, one-act play.
Set designer Thomas Lynch has supplied an almost too-elegant setting for it, a purple and plum stage upon which sits a striking yellow free-form sofa, a pile of books beside it. As the monologue progresses, what looks like a piece of abstract art on the set’s rear scrim is lit from behind to reveal a gauzy impression of Jimmy’s studio. It’s all gorgeous, but perhaps it’s also all too much Paris and too little Harlem.
The title of Orlandersmith’s piece, far from incidentally, is her “umbrella term for all the urban ghetto’s life-destroying scams and temptations.”