The dark art of violence and abuse

May 31

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Dael Orlandersmith wrote and stars in Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a drama about abused boys and how the violence impacts their lives. Photos by www.kevinberne.com

Dael Orlandersmith’s Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men is a brutal experience. How could it not be? Its 90-plus minutes are all about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young men and how such violence affects them into adulthood. These fictional stories are harrowing, graphic and shattering, which is to say this is as far as you can get from an evening of light entertainment.

Orlandersmith wrote and performs these grim stories, and she doesn’t pull any punches as she plays six men/boys of varying ages and ethnicities. Under the direction of Chay Yew, Orlandersmith is such a graceful, powerful performer that you can’t take your eyes off of her, even when the material makes you flinch.

The most effective characters are the ones the Orlandersmith develops over several visits. When we first meet Flaco, he’s 15 and talking all about the hustle – everyone, from the social workers in the 11 group homes he’s been in over the last four years to himself, is playing one game or another. At 15, he’s quite the hustler himself, but we won’t know the extent of his hustle until we meet him again later in the show. By way of introduction, he re-creates his home life with a Puerto Rican dad who desperately wants to take his family back home and a Puerto Rican mom who is slowly losing her mental faculties and falling into the grip of what she calls “the daisy chain king.” What transpires between mother and her young son is horrific, and when Flaco tries to tell people about it, no one will believe him because “women, mothers don’t do that kind of thing.” The next chapters in Flaco’s life, as he attempts to make a life for himself on the streets and outside the broken system that is attempting to “care” for him, just get worse.

The other well-defined character is Ian, a lad from Manchester, England, whose Irish parents drive him from their home with their propensity for drink. After an especially harrowing and nearly deadly incident with his raging drunk father, Ian makes plans to live his life differently, and we see him, through the years, trying do so, even as his behavior begins to echo the world he fought so hard to escape.

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The non-recurring characters are not as compelling. Larry, a groundskeeper known as “the Mayor of Central Park,” tells us about a father and his two sons who come play football in the park. The dad and older brother are fighting hard to make the younger brother, who is apparently not a paragon of masculinity, into a tough he-man. And by fighting hard, Larry implies that they’re essentially bullying him to the point of abuse. I kept expecting to hear from Larry again or maybe to hear from the bullied young man himself later in the show, but that never happens, leaving this episode feeling incomplete.

I have a personal aversion to adults playing children, so when Orlandersmith launched into the story of 11-year-old Timmy in his shaky little-boy voice, I cringed a little. The story, about Timmy’s junkie mom, her various horrible boyfriends and a life no child should ever have to experience, is a sadly predictable downward spiral that leaves Timmy wondering why God hates him. He says, in a voice more from a writer than from an 11-year-old, that he wonders where God is.

The most difficult story of all comes from Tenny, an even-keeled, self-aware child molester who preyed upon his own pre-teen nephew. Orlandersmith follows Tenny into his prison sentence, and he says he can’t help who he is, but everything he says only makes this story more repulsive. The most frustrating story is that of Mike, a kid with a rough past (in a family of seven kids, he was known as the “trick baby”) who seemed to rise above it, turning his past into art via his writing and serving kids like him in a shelter. But Mike can’t escape his past, either, and melts down in a way that he sees as a complete failure.

I have to say I had a hard time with this show, and I guess that’s the point. I can’t say I’d recommend it, though it’s expertly performed and designed (the austere set, just a frayed wooden floor and a chair, is by Daniel Ostling and the stunning lights, shaping the darkness into physical space, is by Ben Stanton).

I know stories like this need to be told and theater shouldn’t always be easy, but I guess what I miss most in this world-premiere show (a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) is a sense of Orlandersmith herself and her connection to these stories. I wish the show conveyed in some way why she’s sharing these stories with us and why she keeps us at such a distance while making us and making us feel black, blue and broken ourselves.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dael Orlandersmith’s Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men continues through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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