Poetic but not Dramatic
by David A. Rosenberg
In her “Bossa Nova” at Yale Rep, Kirsten Greenidge has written a lot of ideas. But she hasn’t written much of a play. The world premiere of her drama shows her ease with poetic phrases but not with enough ability to shape plot and emotionally engage an audience.
The title refers to the Brazilian dance craze that morphed into jazz, representing the transition from old order to new, tradition to adventure. Caught in between is Dee Paradis who, when we first see her, is the 27-year-old daughter of an upwardly mobile black family.
The play occupies two time zones, from the early 1980s back to the civil rights era of the 1970s. In the present, Dee tries to convince her vain, snobbish, elegant mother, Lady (her name, not her title) to change her mind about sending the youngster we believe is Dee’s sister Jane to St. Ursula’s, the fancy school that Dee herself attended a decade earlier. But Dee’s light-skinned mom is adamant, more concerned with scrubbing face and hands in her obsession with style and status than giving in to her distressed daughter.
Flashback: Dee, now 17 and a top student, is idolized by her white, awkward roommate, Libby Woodbridge. She’s also desired by her white history teacher, the jazz-obsessed, loose-limbed Micheal (yes, that’s the spelling) Cabot, who is married to a cool blonde named Joan. Both Libby and Micheal are fascinated with blacks as blacks, while Dee, in search of herself, lives “in the margins.”
Implications of clashing internal values make for an unusual take on race relations. But the play is repetitious and pretentious, more remembered than spontaneous. Greenidge doesn’t – yet? – possess the skill to involve audiences in rooting for anyone. These characters are constructs, stick figures, for all their heightened posturing.
The author is talented on other levels, though, especially in the way she uses the senses. Is smelling acceptably clean of lesser or greater value than smelling of primal sweat? “No underwear and no deodorant and we’d be so full of true and pure talent, we’d sweat strawberry wine and chamomile tea,” says Grace. Similarly, Micheal wants Dee to smell of “sweat and brine.” They are, of course, buying into stereotypes.
Director Evan Yionoulis humanizes the characters, not an easy task when dealing with writing that veers towards stasis and surrealism. Michael Vincent Skinner’s sounds – echoes, barking dogs, scratching of paint – good as they are in context, show up the paucity of the material.
As Dee, Francesca Choy-Kee is particularly impressive in her awakening maturity. Whether writhing about on the floor or treading ever so lightly in her mother’s presence, she demarcates the dangerous shoals between adolescence and adulthood.
Ella Joyce is a cold, egotistical, devouring Lady Paradis; Libby Woodbridge suggests mountains of thwarted desire as Grace; Tommy Schrider does his best to avoid making the distasteful Micheal totally ridiculous; as Joan, Emily Dorsch is given speeches even Helen Hayes would have trouble with. As Jane, Malenky Welsh gives an unspoiled performance, and she skips well.
Yale’s next production is August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson.” Let’s hope everyone connected with “Bossa Nova” sticks around to watch and learn from this dramatic masterpiece.