Impossible Beauty

It's painful not to measure up to society's ideals. The ever-present modern media gorges its viewers on a steady diet of impossible beauty and unreachable standards. What's worse is that the standards against which women judge themselves are almost exclusively images of white beauty – a false example which leaves out a huge segment of the population. Is it surprising, then, that it's next to impossible for young women to develop a healthy self-image? Black Girl Ugly, a performance piece by Ashley Brockington, Nicole Cain, and Lee Avant which the authors are currently performing at the WOW Cafe, explores their own experiences in a culture which puts white beauty on a pedestal and pushes everyone else aside. Through monologues, scenes and movement, they transform their own personal stories into a kind of Everywoman account of growing up black in America. The resulting production, although rough around the edges, provides a touching, amusing and ultimately thought-provoking evening.

The show is composed of a succession of thematically-related scenes and skits tied together by movement sequences and voice-overs. Among the strongest scenes are those which cut through the polite, neutral surface which we show to the public to reveal the pain which simmers underneath. Particularly successful sequences include a church sermon in which the minister extols her parishioners to examine their roots and straighten their hair in order to be more like Jesus, and a hilarious sequence which pits a conforming corporate drone against a Black Pride job applicant. More brutal is a skit called “Someone Knocked Me Down” in which a young woman (played by Brockington) recites her exceptional academic accomplishments only to have them repeatedly torn to pieces by her onlookers, until she is literally bound and gagged by their judgments.

Black Girl Ugly's text-based scenes are generally stronger than the movement sequences. Although some are evocative, like the one in which the three cast members rhythmically twitch in front of a flashing TV screen, reacting to the unreachable ideals of the white media, at other times the dances seem unspecific. Their shape and flow are not fully polished, which undermines the story the performers are trying to tell. For example, a potentially excellent scene which reveals the interior monologues of the above mentioned corporate sell-out and very black applicant as they size each other up is marred by imprecise movement: because their gestures are generalized and don't perfectly match the voice-overs, it isn't always clear who is thinking what.

Black Girl Ugly would have benefited from stronger direction than Kiebpoli Calnek provided. The show's flaws are of the kind which usually arise when performers direct themselves without the aid of an off-stage critical eye. The director should have clarified the physical storytelling and might have improved the flow and rhythm of the piece as a whole, which was heavy on movement for the first half and on monologues for the second. Opening the show with one of the excellent monologues -- such as the one in which Brockington compares growing up in America as a black woman to having a disease, commenting “there are so many signs of your inferiority, if no one is telling you differently, how do you grow up strong?” -- would have established the thrust of the show much more quickly and cleanly.

The design elements for Black Girl Ugly are simple and functional. The set design -- a black box dominated by a downstage stool covered with identical white baby-dolls – is a suitable frame for the show. The sound design by Brockington and Rob Paravonian – which is dominated by echoing voice-overs – is weaker, for although it establishes a dreamy, self-reflective tone, it also occasionally makes the text difficult to understand.

Performers Cain, Avant, and Brockington form a solid ensemble and are all appealing. Brockington, however, stands out for her magnetic presence and heart-felt acting. Her material is also the most rawly personal and thus the most compelling in the show.

Black Girl Ugly is the kind of theater which places demands on its audience. Viewers must be ready to absorb and respond to the experiences of others – experiences which many, if not all, of the audience shares. For those who wish to laugh at the familiar and ponder the tragicomic situation of black women in America, it's a good choice. Black Girl Ugly is an earnest piece, and its brief one hour running time feels like the prologue to a much longer conversation.

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