Whose Identity Is It, Anyway?

Kirsten Greenidge’s new play, Bossa Nova, now in its world premiere run at the Yale Repertory Theatre, addresses the notion of identity—particularly African-American cultural identity—as a theatrical experience, a matter of roles, costumes, lines, demeanor, comportment, and all the other aspects of theater that lend themselves as metaphors for social expectations.  The play gives us five distinctly mannered characters—four adults and one child—and a protagonist, Dee Paradis (twenty-seven, but seventeen in flashbacks), as the loose cannon, the figure who hasn’t quite accepted any manner as definitively her own. Dee’s mother, Lady Paradis, tries to help her daughter by training her.  As played by Ella Joyce, Lady is self-assured, definite, judgmental, a woman who, by her own admission, has scraped and clawed to escape the taint of her race, the aspects of being “colored” that she wouldn’t let mark her and determine her place.  She spends most of her scenes as an haute bourgeois matron at her dressing-table, putting on her face, choosing her wardrobe and accessories, and exhorting her daughter to find a face she can wear, to make the most of the privileges her parents have gained for her.

In flashbacks to Dee’s school days at a boarding school called St. Ursula’s, we hear of her outcast status among the daughters of the privileged.  The only people to befriend her are her equally misfit roommate Grace Mahoney (Libby Woodbridge) an Irish girl from Southey in Boston, eagerly attempting to discover her “talent,” so as to have a purpose, while sending school-girl crush vibes toward Dee, and Michael Cabot, a history teacher desperately trying to become hip by listening to jazz and by extolling black experience: naturally, he seduces Dee and that’s where the trouble really begins, not only because of the inevitable complications, but because Michael would place a costume on Dee supposedly authentic, as relics from tribal Africa, but as artificial to the girl as her mother’s painted face.

As Michael, Tommy Schrider gets all the comedy he can from the teacher’s gyrations as he rather anachronistically praises bebop jazz as “the future” (in the early Seventies!), and speaks a lingo that suggests Jack Kerouac is not only still alive (he died in 1969) but in his first flush of success.  Where’s this guy been, we wonder, and why the bossa nova (a “new trend” in the early Sixties)—when this should be the era of late Motown and Stevie Wonder?  In other words, either the time-frame of Dee’s school days are askew, partaking of the mid Sixties rather than the early Seventies in which they ostensibly occur, or Michael is a colossal throwback.  Either way, he’s the most fun character in the play.

The other fun thing is director Evan Yionoulis’ staging: very sparsely decorated, Ana M. Milosevic’s scenic design propels furniture and characters about the space for scene changes, and, with Laura J. Eckleman’s lighting design and Michael Vincent Skinner’s sound design, creates wonderfully integrated effects as we move through three different settings, two different periods, and a range of sounds, from old records to barking dogs to a busy paintbrush on canvas.

The other strengths of this production are its two main actresses: Ella Joyce wrings all the fait accompli dignity she can from Lady, with a weathered but musical voice that speaks its owner’s strong will, and, as the mercurial Dee, Francesca Choy-Kee has to act girlish for twenty-seven, and precocious for seventeen (its her essay that first gets Michael’s attention), straight-laced one minute and an Aretha-style “natural woman” the next, and, before the play’s over, call up an outcast’s heart-rending cries.  Hers is an intelligent, wary, and finally emotionally convincing performance in a play that could be, without her and her director’s grasp of the character, somewhat dubious.

Yale Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Bossa Nova by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Evan Yionoulis

November 26 to December 18, 2010