Keeping It in the Family

The basic premise of Christina Anderson’s Inked Baby faces the danger of falling into sensational, soapy water: When husband and wife Gloria (LaChanze) and Greer (Damon Gupton) cannot conceive a child, they decide to have Greer instead conceive with her younger sister Lena (Angela Lewis). Only despite modern fertility innovations, the three opt for conception the old-fashioned way, with Gloria’s husband and sister in bed together for the most strictly scientific of reasons. Some writers might make the journey leading to this decision the crux of their show. Not so for Anderson, an emerging voice with plenty of promise. The intimate encounter between Greer and Lena kicks off her Baby, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. She takes what could have been merely an odd love triangle and fashions a story that is about much more – and also, at times both refreshingly and disappointingly, about even less.

Anderson has more on her mind than domestic drama. Baby also packs a whopping amount of social commentary, though director Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) keeps the show moving at such a fluid, involving pace that one never tastes the medicine on its way down.

Baby takes place in an unknown American city, but one that represents Chicago or Detroit. Gloria, Greer and Lena have lived under one roof ever since Lena was laid off from a New York job in the finance sector. It is the childhood home of the two girls, built and tended by their father, who passed away when the girls were young. Lena, roughly a decade Gloria’s junior, was sent off to school and so has spent the better part of her life away from home while Gloria took care of their ailing father.

Between their differences in age, education, and fortunes in love and genetics, there are ample reasons for tension between the two sisters, but Anderson doesn’t really mine any of them. Instead, Greer and Gloria become disengaged from one another in ways that seem less than organic, with Gloria morphing into an unpleasant nag and an unfaithful drag.

At this point, Baby shifts away from the home front and into more metaphysical – and perhaps, even, metaphorical – terrain. It seems that perhaps the reason for Gloria’s past miscarriages has little to do with her own biology and more to do with the family’s lifelong exposure to an industrial waste dump. Greer, Lena’s childhood friend Ky (Nikkole Salter), and Odlum (Che Ayende), Gloria’s secret man, all manifest frightening symptoms of a new kind of virus, one that has them spewing soil from various parts of their body. Though clearly not HIV, Anderson clearly recalls both the dismissal and panic that arose during the disease’s early days.

Baby then becomes about something very different from what it initially suggests. Rather than debating the bioethical issues of what happens when a surrogate mother is a close relative, the show tackles the issue of environmental racism. The low-income area where these characters have lived may literally be hazardous to their health. Anderson’s play is undeniably steeped in the current state of the African-American experience. The playwright pays literal homage to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun both in her dialogue and, presumably, in the naming of Lena’s character.

This is heavy stuff, doled out in quite a palatable manner, but while Baby transfers its subject matter, it never quite reaches any transcendent level. Instead of cresting, the problems of the individual characters in the play give way to the politics of their creator. Anderson is to be applauded for her ambition, but in switching from a realistic predicament to one less so, she loosens the grip she has on her audience.

This is not the fault of Whoriskey’s excellent cast, who all tap into their characters’ (often) unspoken emotions of fear, grief and shame. Gupton is impressive, and it is nice to see Tony-winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) shine in a non-musical role. The real discovery is the incandescent Lewis, who never hits a false note. All actors, though, are to be commended for finding the poetry in Anderson’s dialogue and for making their characters’ emotions identifiable for audiences of any race.

Unconventional as it may be, Baby is certainly a work worthy of much attention and discussion. Anderson has given birth to a child of which she can be proud.

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