Painting pictures with the cool rhythms of her words, Dael Orlandersmith vividly conjures the teeming world of ’70s Harlem and a young woman’s struggle to escape its constrictions in “The Gimmick.” A solo work written and performed by Orlandersmith, “Gimmick” is an often deeply affecting tribute to the transforming power of language and learning — and the people who steadfastly believe in their promise in an environment where more immediate and visceral gratification continually beckon.
The show opens with an epistolary voiceover, a letter from a Ms. Innis informing Alexis that her friend Jimmy has died. A slash of light cuts across the darkness as Orlandersmith, her large frame outfitted in black, steps onto the stage.
Matthew Frey’s angular, emphatic lighting is used throughout the show to amplify recurrent imagery contrasting light and darkness, black and white. The stage itself is the blackened backstage area at New York Theater Workshop, with a wide streak of white running down the center.
Mixing snippets of tart, often funny impersonations with narrative commentary , Orlandersmith tells the story of Alexis and Jimmy, a pair of Harlem misfits, beginning with the deep and instant friendship they form when they meet in their childhood on the stoop of a brownstone.
Alexis is an outsider due to her weight problems and seeks refuge in the local library from the taunts of neighborhood kids and her alcoholic mother’s verbal abuse.
There she comes under the stern but benevolent influence of the librarian Ms. Innis, who opens up the world of literature to her, starting with James Baldwin. Soon Alexis is ardently dreaming of a life of literary glamour, Parisian style, while Jimmy finds his own escape route in painting, to which he devotes himself with the same youthful fervor.
A quotation from Baldwin warning against the easy lure of making peace with defeat resonates strongly as Orlandersmith describes the soul-deadening milieu that Alexis and Jimmy face outside their carefully created fantasy futures. Alexis’ neglectful mother scorns her reading and her body; Jimmy’s drunken, continuously leering father is equally contemptuous of his son’s endeavors. The poverty of the ghetto is no less cruel: Orlandersmith makes palpable the suffocating, intoxicating atmosphere of the streets, where getting money and getting high seem to be the only way to get by (and to get respect), the only “gimmick” that pays.
Her incantatory, repetitive language — reflecting influences from rap to the Beat poets — heightens the almost hallucinatory effect as she describes the lurid colors of life in the ghetto. But these stylistic flourishes also are overused, to the point of putting unnecessary distance between the audience and the experience of the narrative.
Orlandersmith also interprets her story for us at too many points rather than allowing the images and characters to speak for themselves. After describing the heady enthusiasm with which the kids greet the approach of the ice-cream truck, Orlandersmith adds, “We were reaching for the sweetness of childhood.”
Still, her naturally warm, intelligent presence and the poignance of her story make much of “Gimmick” emotionally engaging. Although the story may not be strictly autobiographical (and one wonders whether the occasionally lurid turns it takes are factual), there is the gritty feel of actual experience in it. Driving its sometimes overflowing torrent of language is the desire to turn painful and ugly truth into something beautiful.