“Bossa Nova,” Yale Repertory Theatre
By Irene Backalenick
Perusing a black magazine years ago, this reviewer was shocked to find that its abundant pictures spreads were devoted to black debutante parties—young girls in their elaborate gowns accompanied by their formally attired escorts—party after party with the “right” people attending. This segment of the black population had chosen, not to honor its own rich traditions, but to emulate the very absurdities, the very snobbishness, of one
segment of white society.
And now playwright Kirsten Greenidge takes on that very theme—a theme rarely explored in black plays—and the play, though flawed, is absorbing for that reason.
In Greenidge’s “Bossa Nova,” Lady Paradis has always had high social aspirations. With a successful husband, she has managed to rise to the top of black Boston society. She wants the same for her daughter Dee—wealth, a proper husband, the right connections. Never mind professional achievement. Forget black civil rights, black culture, past history. Lady Paradis sets down the rules, and rules with an iron hand.
It is indeed telling that the play opens with Lady Paradis seated at her dressing table, surrounded by creams, lotions, cosmetics. She is a stunning, light-skinned woman (whose pigmentation is perhaps aided by those creams and lotions). If she could cross over, one suspects, she would join a parallel white society. Meanwhile, she makes elaborate preparations for a social engagement.
How all this activity plays out would be to give away the bank. Needless to say, Dee, a bright girl smothered by her mother’s control, is set on a collision course. She has been sent to a very proper Catholic girls’ school, where she will indeed be tested by her devoted roommate, her jazz-addled history teacher, and a new environment.
The story hurtles back and forth in time, as Dee struggles with conflicting values. In this Yale production, director Evan Yionoulis deals effectively with the format, but the story is nonetheless confusing. The Greenidge dialogue, more repetitious and high-flown than it is enlightening, does not help to sort things out. The text could indeed benefit from tightening and clarification.
But performances, under the Yionoulis direction, are certainly satisfactory. In particular, Ella Joyce creates a fascinating Lady Paradis. Rarely moving from her dressing table, she is ensconced like a spider in her web, keeping her trapped flies in place, ruling implacably. It is a dream role for any actor, and Joyce makes the most of it. Other solid performances are also forthcoming from Francesca Choy-Kee as Dee, and Tommy Schrider as the history teacher.
Yet, despite these earnest professional efforts, the play itself
disappoints, leaving characters and audience alike in a state of confusion.
This review also appeared in the CT Post and nytheaterscene.com.