Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Liberty City

Maybe every child should have to attend a school where they're in the 1% minority; maybe we should all have to watch our parents divorce and lose faith, live through race-incited riots, or have our father chain us to the rusted remains of slave shackles. On second thought, scratch that: April Yvette Thompson is a one-of-a-kind performer. Even if we recreated the exact circumstances that molded her childhood, there'd never be another actress able to convey those stories with such honesty, comedy, heartache, and strength. Her one-woman show, Liberty City, is filled with unabashed pride and embarrassing details, and it's one of the strongest solo shows to grace the stage not just because it's brave, but because it's necessary. We've had richly performed shows like Bridge and Tunnel or I Am My Own Wife take center stage, but it's been a long time since seeing such a pure (albeit processed) and relevant show.

The show begins with Tal Yarden's mood-setting video collage of retro 70s-landscape sketches, bubbly depictions that make the grime seem homely, and then lights introduce us to the various homes of April's characters. From stage right: a salon chair, home for LaMarr, a talkative hairdresser; a kitchen, where the wizened Auntie Caroline will separate the nonsense from the truth; a cozy living room, indistinct save for an illustration of Black pride and perhaps some doorway dangling beads, in which we'll meet April's straight-talking father and her calm mother; and finally, Aunt Valerie's apartment, which has seen a few soul-shaking boogie nights. The physicality of Antje Ellermann's set is important: first, for the fences and brick walls that loom (as in the projection) behind the cozy facade; second, for the lack of borders, a casual environment that allows April to throw herself from one setting (or character) to another with the simple grace afforded only to the finest performers. Assisted by Jessica Blank's grounded direction, Mrs. Thompson smoothly propels herself between roles, ever growing the momentum and pace, until finally the tension erupts.

The last fourth of Liberty City takes these familiar, empathetic characters and pushes their narratives up against burning KMarts and National Guardsmen in the street. It's a powerful contrast between seeing her confident father go from talking about Santa ("Ain't no imaginary motherfucker gonna come down the chimney and give you shit") to being arrested for trying to cross the riot zone's border. (A frustrating situation that, as a political activist for civil liberties, he's often faced.) It's sad, too, to see her mother, a confident woman much like April, slowly lose herself as she joins a door-to-door church, looking for faith that has been slowly chiseled away by the system. Saddest of all is watching Caroline go from telling the story of how she raised April's father to having to explain how she deals with her own, when Valerie gets addicted to the crack that has blighted the neighborhood. And through all these bedraggled situations, April keeps her own head held high. Her father might be "looking like the poetry just walked out the door" after being harassed, but in Liberty City, the poetry is always there, a profound elegance found even in her father's cuss-laden speeches.

Early on, April's father explains that she has to go to an all-white private school "to learn the enemy's rules." It's a harsh observation, and probably accurate at the time, but it's presented even-handedly in the play -- the viewpoint of one of many very real characters -- and therefore avoids the pointlessness of blind accusation. By doing so, April Yvette Thompson has given us the chance to learn -- not from an enemy, but from a fellow human . . . who just happens to be a tremendous performer.

Note: use LCBLG88 when ordering tickets for $25 tickets.

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