Domestic violence is the leading cause of death among African-American women between 15 and 24, and 4 million American women experience a serious assault by an intimate partner during a 12-month period. “Ugly,” based on the true story of a victim named Alice Marie, has scenes that dramatize the problem with crushing candor, but its power is undercut by unsteady, jolting jumps between realistic street jargon and self-conscious, overwritten flights of poetry.
The poetic passages, written by Nelsan Narie Ellis, reveal a striking flair for language, but they intrude upon the story. This is immediately evident during a pretentious, portentously talky opening.
The play finds its horrifying heart when Spoke (J. David Shanks) criticizes, batters and kills his pregnant wife, Alice Marie (Lynn Wactor). Ellis, who also directed, stages the encounter with unsparing brutality; this poses a problem because scenes that follow — while some are gripping — don’t match this one for sheer power.
Spoke isn’t fully defined in the writing. Mention is made of his frustration about not getting a job he considers worthy of his abilities, but there isn’t enough backstory. Shanks compensates for this lack by demonstrating how effusive affection and sexual desire can evolve into vicious battering.
A measure of Shanks’ range can be gauged by comparing his perf to his comic portrayals in pics “Barbershop” and “Barbershop 2.” Guided by director Ellis, Shanks here builds his boiling rages, so that we watch storm clouds in the distance moving closer as unfounded, jealous accusations cause him to erupt with shocking suddenness.
Wactor gives force to these fights by playing Alice Marie with pride and strength. She’s never a pathetic victim, though she sometimes underestimates Spoke’s capacity for violence by refusing him sex or accepting a gift from her male employer. Like so many battered women, she feels the compulsion to defend her man and rationalize his behavior through such statements as, “It didn’t hurt, we were just playing a game,” and, “He can really be gentle when he’s not in the mood to fight.”
As Alice Marie’s sister Yvonne, Damali Scott represents the voice of reason. Scott brings warmth and vitality to the role of a frantically concerned sibling who witnesses the beatings and struggles to rescue Alice Marie before irrevocable tragedy strikes. Begging Alice Marie to remove her sunglasses, or threatening Spoke with a baseball bat, she inspiringly exemplifies women who have the guts to stand up for themselves and those they love.
Scott also brings the evening its rare interludes of warmth and humor in a sequence where she questions Alice Marie about her sex life and lustily confides, “I found myself a stallion.” Her responses are dramatized, rather than dissipated, by the talk and preachiness found elsewhere in the play.
Raymond T. Williams is impressive as DayDay, Alice Marie’s incarcerated brother, who vows revenge. The climax, when DayDay and Spoke meet in darkness, is handled too quietly and indirectly. It’s a moment that has unrealized, explosive dramatic potential.
Most of the cast members are Juilliard graduates, and the level of acting is uniformly superior, although Toi Perkins and Abby Gerdts have to cope with artificial parts. Christopher Mowod struggles with the role of Alice Marie and Spoke’s son. Mowod conveys the bewilderment and panic of a youngster in such a troubling situation, but his role is sketchy and his major monologue doesn’t come off.
Victor “Papa” Paredes supplies jittery, exciting percussion that goes well beyond generic underscoring to add specific, agitated drive to every scene.