Dael Orlandersmith plays six different men in her latest one-woman show. Each has a story to tell involving the sexual, emotional or physical abuse of boys. In one chilling scene, we hear from a self-justifying pedophile, and in another—the show’s weakest—Orlandersmith inhabits a Central Park groundskeeper who describes watching a father bully his son into playing sports. But the rest of the time, the Obie winner plays the victim, performing a series of monologues that are riveting in their candor and devastating in their impact.
The characters’ backgrounds, ages and races vary. There’s Ian, a British-born Wall Street shark whose father was a violent drunk. Flaco, a Puerto Rican hustler, was sexually abused by his schizophrenic mother and then lost in a welter of group homes and ineffectual social workers. The diversity allows Orlandersmith to show off her gift for accents, but the show (commissioned by the Goodman and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it premiered last May) transcends mere mimicry.
Inspired, she says, by her time spent working in an emergency shelter for at-risk youth, Orlandersmith approaches her characters with boundless empathy and fearlessness when it comes to uncovering ugly truths. She is especially good at conveying the coarsening effects of growing up in an environment of violence. In the process, she makes a convincing case for a masculinity that combines both strength and tenderness.