Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men is a solo drama written and performed byDael Orlandersmith that gnashes and rips through the layers of polite society to reveal the horrific underbelly of child abuse and the devastating scars it leaves on its innocent victims. Searing, repulsive and bleak, it is quite difficult to sit through the 90-minute performance without wanting to cry. In film there is a distance that is maintained due to the medium, but in live theatre you are in-the-moment and exposed. And, in this case, left raw, as Orlandersmith becomes five different boys (none of them older than fourteen, and most much younger), whose lives are shattered right before our eyes. Playing now through June 24, Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men is truth-telling at its very best…about the very worst.
Orlandersmith is seated on a wooden chair, the only prop on stage. Overhead there are several lights that look like the ones you might find in a police interrogation room. Other than that scenic designer Daniel Ostling gives us only long floor boards – the kind you would find in many homes. But The Edges are torn apart exposing what lies beneath – a fitting metaphor for the show. The subtle sound effects by Mikhail Fiksel step in to set the scene; underscoring the terror evoked by the actress.
Orlandersmith is dressed completely in black (Costume Design by Anita Yavich) and flooded by a stark square of light (wonderful design by Ben Stanton). She is Flaco, a Puerto Rican boy who can’t get anyone to believe that his mother is sexually abusing him. He’s so sick of “the system” hauling him from one group home to another that by age twelve he decides no one’s going to hustle him anymore – so he hustles himself. We watch in horror as he fidgets and squirms, then cries out in pain as he endures abusive sex with a rich businessman. Later he says that people would be surprised if they knew how many rich, married men from Westchester find their way into the City for sex with him and others like him.
Ian is Irish and grew up with an abusive father. Orlandersmith engages us with Ian’s accent as he speaks of his “da” and his mum. The father is a brute who beats him when he’s drunk then begs forgiveness when he’s sober. Ian swore to get out and did – only to repeat the cycle himself, never escaping the notion that he’s stupid and worthless.
Next she becomes seven year old Timmy and her voice changes and grows softer. “How come I have to live in a group home,” he asks plaintively. There is no answer that is given that will make sense to him, even though on some level he knows. After all, he watched his little sister die after getting into mommy’s heroin. But still, he’s only seven.
On and on Orlandersmith takes us, introducing us to a pedophile and then telling us of a father who mercilessly tries to get his son to be more of a man. Her portrayals are unrelenting and there is no relief for the children or for us. We are left with the stark reality that for these boys there is no happily ever after and no silver lining that they can look forward to. Yes, they are survivors, thank god. But there is no joy, not for any of them.
Though the portrayals are vivid and disturbing and delivered by an actress of extraordinary talent, ultimately the decision to opt for relentless attack, instead of a story arcs’ rhythm, cadence and crescendo, makes for a dazed and numbing experience for the audience. And perhaps that is the intention, but it is not clear. Certainly this show makes you think…and hopefully to act, so that truth-telling about the worst of society is not solely confined to the stage.
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men
Now through June 24
Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Chay Yew
Berkeley Repertory Theater
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com