Abused and abusing, the titular figures in “Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men” struggle to escape cycles of domestic violence. But at present this latest work by playwright-actress Dael Orlandersmith (“Yellowman”) has its own issues to work through — chiefly, a garrulous text of multicharacter monologues that never trust that suggestive economy could be more effective than heavy-handed, literal-minded bathos. Besides, Orlandersmith’s tentative solo performance suggests she has yet mastered the text. One hopes both script and production will gain nuanced strength as the Berkeley Rep/Goodman Theater co-production moves forward.
The half-dozen subjects here (fictive despite their aura of Anna Deavere Smith-type docudrama) are all New Yorkers, running the gamut of race, class and age. Flaco, for instance, is a Coney Island ‘Rican kid who could convince no one his mentally ill mother sexually abused him — even social workers figure that’s something only men do. During the evening Flaco keeps updating us on a personal case-history that gets much worse (running away, turning tricks and getting high from age 12) before it gets better.
Other characters get just one or two shots at telling their story. Old-salt Central Park fixture Larry recalls improbably precise memories of every time a white “stockbroker type” bullied his “sissy” youngest son. South Bronx tot Timmy “wonders where God is” as mom’s serial bad boyfriends introduce her to heroin, crack, prostitution and criminal child neglect. Ian is a transplanted Brit who wrestles against the stereotypical misogyny and violence of his Irish-Catholic pub-drunk ancestry; African-American Brooklynite Mike discovered early on he was a “trick baby,” thus least valued by an unstable hooker mom and stepdad.
These first-person narratives are full of difficult, potent themes. But in nearly every case the story goes overboard, risking politically correct abuse-scenario caricature via melodramatic cliches and on-the-nose speeches. There’s a lean, mean show here about the toll of abuse, but as yet it’s buried under an early-draft pileup of well-intentioned writerly excesses.
It didn’t help that on opening night Orlandersmith seemed to be dashing through the voluminous text, frequently line-stumbling and sometimes seeming to lose her place. That left little room for quieter shadings of character the show could use much more of (just as it could use fewer narrative crises and digressive descriptive details). Shorn of any costuming changes, she etches the all-male roles in physical and vocal terms that are distinct but often superficial. They all could use some wearing in, particularly Uncle Tenny, a blandly self-justifying white pederast whom Orlandersmith didn’t yet seem to have a handle on.
Yew’s production is spare and effective in design terms, notably in Daniel Ostling’s stark set (torn-asunder apartment floorboards) and Ben Stanton’s subtle lighting changes.