Actors itching to turn their personal lives into solo theater should come to “Liberty City” with a notepad. April Yvette Thompson, working with director and co-writer Jessica Blank, conjures her Miami childhood in explicit detail, but she leaps beyond the narcissism of her particular emotions to evoke an entire African-American community in the 1970s. Instead of anecdotes, she delivers scorching insight on how history both frees and chains us at the same time. The show has the sting of truth because Thompson and Blank (“The Exonerated”) tangle everything with contradictions.
At first, Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood is a loving enclave of black power activists and extended families. On a set that is part kitchen, part living room, and part beach, we meet engaging characters like Thompson’s father Saul, an Afrocentric community leader, and her adoptive grandmother Auntie Carolyn, who dispenses wisdom while cooking Bahaman food.
In an exceptional perf, Thompson embodies characters using nothing but accents and postures, never even changing her neutral clothes. Her choices are so strong and specific — and her transitions so quick — that the stage often seems full of people, and the clarity makes it easy to care about everyone she portrays.
It’s just as easy to be devastated when her family dissolves, crack infiltrates her neighborhood, and Miami explodes into race riots in 1980.
But here’s the rub: We see exactly how the happy revolutionaries of the opening scenes are involved in the destruction that follows. Saul is loving and politically noble, and he also cheats on his wife. Auntie Carolyn is flamboyant and fun, and she denies her own daughter’s drug addiction.
On a larger scale, the play even complicates its primary symbol. Early on, Saul takes young April to the Bahamas and binds her in the very chains that slaves wore while they were being held there. He wants her to be proud of what her ancestors survived.
Later, however, Thompson’s home has been decimated by white racism and black rage, and the chains echo the bitterness of slavery’s legacy as well as its inspiration.
Rather than dilute that conflict, the shows reiterates it. A scene of violence flows into a scene of hope. Thompson’s mother joins a cultish church to avoid her divorce, and she risks her own life to find her children during the riot. Just as in life, there’s no separating the good and the bad. You have to take it all.
The creative team supports this perspective with matter-of-fact work. Designers tell the story but don’t tell us how to feel, so we’re required to reach our own emotional conclusions. Blank helps Thompson shape her perf so that her feelings are vivid without being overwrought. That restraint deepens the play’s sizable appeal.