The depth of its anger gives “Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires” an urgency often lacking in the theater’s glut of one-person shows. Slam poet Staceyann Chin, who played Broadway in “Def Poetry Jam,” recounts her life as a half-black/half-Chinese lesbian in Jamaica, but her memories of first kisses and hate crimes are more than nostalgia. Jamaican lesbians and “chi-chi men” are routinely killed for outing themselves, so as she speaks from a Gotham stage, Chin is giving voice to an entire population made silent by fear. The very existence of her whip-smart poems is an act of political defiance.
As a performer, Chin seems capable of fostering a revolution. Her growling voice rolls with impeccable rhythm, making hypnotic music out of witty insights and sharp social critiques.
In the show’s first half, her story is well-shaped, expertly wending from homeland fear and oppression to the freedom she finds via New York microphones. Whether stuttering over painful memories or spilling out praise for an ex-girlfriend, her commitment to each story gives its emotion a very real sting.
This immediacy hits a thrilling apex at the show’s midpoint, when Chin finally explodes into rage. She’s made it to America, able to speak freely, so she belts out a poem about the hatred she’s endured. Her voice low and loud, her hair unleashed from pigtails into a billowing Afro, she launches her words to the furious stomps of her feet. Even the lights get angry, as a fiery orange blast erupts from beneath the plastic-glass floor. Lit from below, Chin’s a shadowy specter devouring the stage. For a moment she’s as superhuman as a Fury.
Then, thankfully, she has the sense to tell a joke. Humor leavens the self-righteousness and lets the political warrior become goofily human. It’s hard to feel proselytized by a woman who once cried so hard while getting her hair combed that she ended up with “tears, snot and hair oil smoothed on (her) face in an unpleasant potion.” And by placing a harrowing tale of sexual assault next to a giddy discovery of “dyke rock,” Chin complicates her anger with vulnerability and joy.
Director Ron Urbinati and lighting designer Garin Marschall adeptly make images match the performer’s tone. When she remembers being a shy young thing, Chin turns in small circles, sometimes chasing a spotlight that moves without her. There’s no doubting, then, the woman she’s become when she later bounds through light that shifts with her mood.
Unfortunately, after its furious peak, “Border/Clash” loses touch with the larger world. Her rage unleashed, Chin meanders through touchy-feely stories of Broadway fame and visits with family. Even her voice suffers, flattening into monotone over shapeless accounts of self-affirmation.
It’s a disappointingly solipsistic end. Chin deserves to be cheerful, of course, but artists like Margaret Cho have proved solo performers can discuss their personal happiness without losing sight of more compelling concerns. Hopefully, Chin’s next outing will find the same dramatic spark in her peace that she’s clearly found in her pain.