Beautifully Orchestrated "Bossa Nova" at Yale Rep

By Amy J. Barry

Bossa Nova by Kirsten Greenidge, premiering at Yale Repertory Theatre, is the personal, powerful story of Diane (Dee) Paradis—exquisitely performed by Francesca Choy-Kee—a young African American woman, struggling to find herself in a world that’s filled with mixed messages and other people’s selfish expectations.

It is also the story of the clash of race and class, of domineering mothers and damaged daughters, of authority figures manipulating their vulnerable charges. We can all relate to something or everything in this deeply moving and troubling work.

The one-act, one-hour-and-40-minute production takes place in two locations and times: the present, which is the early 1980s in the Paradis’s upscale home, and 10 years earlier at the elite, mostly white girls’ school that Dee attends in New England.

This is not a musical as one might surmise from the title—nor is it even punctuated with live musical numbers, although background music well-chosen by sound designer Michael Vincent Skinner alternates between the smooth, easy swing of bossa nova and the grittier, spontaneity of avant-garde jazz and is an important metaphor for the contrasts and contradictions in Dee’s life.

We begin in the present with a conversation between Dee and her mother Lady Paradis (Ella Joyce) who is sitting at her dressing table, meticulously preparing for an elegant dinner party that evening, lecturing her elder daughter in proper etiquette, while younger daughter Jane (Malenky Welsh) skips and plays in the periphery, as though in a dream.

Joyce is a force not to be reckoned with as the precise, controlling matriarch who measures each word as carefully as she applies her makeup, styles her hair, and chooses the perfectly appropriate dress for the upcoming dinner. She constantly warns Dee, “A lady should be careful about her influences.”

Like the music, there is a repetitive rhythm to the words exchanged between Lady and Dee. The mother speaks in short, concise directives, the daughter in a spoken word cadence, as if reading poetry, and yet, underneath Dee’s words we can feel a deep, heavy sadness that Choy-Kee masterfully reveals through her subtle expressions and gestures.

We know there is much more than meets the eye to this mother/daughter relationship—and to Dee’s poignant and protective relationship with Jane.  And under the insightful direction of Evan Yionoulis, and scenic designer Ana Milosevic’s seamlessly rotating set, we travel back and forth from present to past, garnering new information, the mystery slowly and stunningly revealed.

We are introduced to the two other key characters at the boarding school: Dee’s roommate Grace (Libby Woodbridge) and her teacher Mr. Cabot (Tommy Schrider)—both needy, lost souls, who project onto Dee everything they want her to be, incapable, like her mother, of seeing her for who she really is—an intelligent, introspective young woman, who doesn’t fit the hip, edgy stereotype of a modern-day black teenager.

Woodbridge is marvelous as Grace, adding some welcome comic relief as the geeky teenager with a heavy Boston accent who is as unpopular for her unglamorous, eyeglass-clad appearance as Dee is for being one of the only black students at the school. Grace finds relief from her dysfunctional past in painting and in adoring Dee, imagining they will run away together to “The Greenwich Village and drink strawberry wine and not wear deodorant.”

Mr. Cabot is more dangerous, and Schrider’s performance rings true as the ludicrous, bored middle-aged teacher, supported by his wealthy country club wife Joan (Emily Dorsch) who frenetically dances around his office to “real” jazz. He applauds Dee’s intellect but lets his passion overcome his moral code and seduces his innocent young student into an affair.

Dee begins to unravel as she loses her center, “always living in the crevices,” as she describes her life. The final scene is chilling as we learn the real truth of Dee’s relationship with her sister and a narcissistic mother who must keep up outside appearance at far too high a cost.

The play ends where it began, with Lady at her dressing table and Dee pointing out the sad truth, “All this fixing and tucking and we’ve never seen each other.”

But when Dee turns to Jane, there is promise in her voice for a better tomorrow. And so we are left with her uplifting words:

“We’ll sing every inch of ourselves,” she says. “Up through the roof. Up into the sky. We’ll sing how beautiful every little inch of each of us is. Because every little inch, every little spot, is very, very beautiful.”

Bossa Nova is at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre through Dec. 18. Tickets are available online at www.yalerep.org, by phone at 203-432-1234, and at the box office (1120 Chapel Street, at York Street).

 

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