Cycle of Abuse

Let’s get this out of the way first. Dael Orlandersmith’s solo show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is very good, but man, it’s not pleasant. Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men is a series of portraits of abused young boys, most but not all of them speaking as adults, or as close to adulthood as they’ve managed to get while grappling with the demons of their childhood. If that’s the sort of thing you’re going to find triggering, go in forewarned.

Dael Orlandersmith in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men. Photo courtesy of

It’s a one-woman show, but it’s all men: some of them sexually abused as children, some brutally beaten, others growing up with drug-addicted or psychologically abusive parents. A couple of the characters don’t talk about their own childhoods at all: A Central Park groundskeeper talks about watching a father and older brother bully to try to toughen him up and “make a man” of him. And most chillingly of all, an adult details a sexual encounter with a small child, as blithely as if he were talking about playing Go Fish.

Running 90 minutes without intermission, the show’s broken up into vignettes, with the name of the speaker of the next monologue projected onto the wall. It’s the sort of format you might find in a piece based on interviews with real people, like Anna Deavere Smith’s work, but in this case the characters are fictional, which would be a comfort if we didn’t know that stories like theirs, and worse, happen all the time.

Orlandersmith doesn’t pull her punches. Her last piece at Berkeley Rep, 2004’s Yellowman, was a two-character play delving into the hate and prejudice within one African-American family. In this latest world premiere production, both written and performed by Orlandersmith, many of the stories start off bad and just get worse and worse. One boy is repeatedly raped by his mentally ill mother who keeps raving about her “real husband,” “the Daisy-Chain King,” and after bouncing from one group home to another, he starts turning tricks as a preteen. One man regularly beaten by his alcoholic father works hard to make something of himself and get out of that environment, steering clear of drink, only to find that his lingering insecurities about anyone ever loving him make him behave disturbingly like his roaring drunk dad.

The portraits Orlandersmith draws pack a huge punch in emotional impact. Dressed by Anita Yavich in basic black clothes, she doesn’t transform completely from one role to the next—the differences are more subtle than that, mostly in the voice, but she makes them fully believable, despite a shaky British accent as one of the characters. The teen hustler is defiantly cocky, others are more thoughtful and reserved. One small child describing his mother’s spiraling drug abuse is devastating in his despondency. As horrible as the pedophile’s story is, the worst part is the perfect equanimity with which he tells it, and how natural he finds it when childish horsing around segues into abomination.

Director Chay Yew’s stark staging effectively accentuates that resonance. Daniel Ostling’s set for Berkeley Rep’s intimate Thrust Stage shows a wood floor stretching far back into the darkness, its edges roughly broken off all around. Identical ceiling lights hang low over the stage, some of them only knee- or waist-high, and Ben Stanton’s lighting design places characters in the square light of unseen windows. Mikhail Fiksel adds subtle atmospheric sounds of streets, parks or whatever environments are suggested by the stories, and underscores the most grueling moments with unnerving suspense music.

As brutally effective as the stories are, the way they’re woven together could be a little tighter. A couple of the characters come back in multiple segments, while most are self-contained, and at least one of those stories feels awfully anticlimactic (the guy improves himself and gets out of the old neighborhood) until you realize that the point of it is still to come later in the evening.  And some of them are definitely more powerful than others—the Central Park guy in particular, while an amiable character to spend time with, feels like mere anecdote in the company of the other, more deeply personal stories. A very short, relatively uplifting section at the very end feels tacked on, as if to be relatively merciful in what it leaves us with right before we go home, but it’s not the strongest note to go out on.

But these are relatively small quibbles in a tremendously effective examination of the lasting effects of all kinds of abuse on young boys that follows them around for the rest of their lives. As one character says in the penultimate section (which leaves us with more to chew on than the last one), people don’t understand how hard it is not to “succumb to the street” when “the slap, the kick, the punch, the high—that’s all you know.” As horrifying as the mother’s sexual abuse is in the first story, more maddening are all the people, from the father to the female doctor who treats the boy, who insist he must be mistaken because that’s impossible; a mother would never do that. That last speaker, a prostitute’s “trick baby” who grew up to become a writer and social worker, makes it his work to give voice to the unheard children crying out in a darkness it seems like they can never escape. And that’s exactly what Orlandersmith does so magnificently with this play.

Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men
Through June 24
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #52 of 2012, attended May 30.

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