Words become tools to escape the ghetto

Review: `The Gimmick,' a one-woman show by Dael Orlandersmith, examines how two talented youths surmount lethal role models.

May 02, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Use words," a concerned librarian repeatedly advises Alexis, the young protagonist in Dael Orlandersmith's multi-character one-woman show, "The Gimmick." "Don't waste them."

Alexis doesn't -- and neither does Orlandersmith. In interviews, the playwright/performer has emphasized that "The Gimmick" is not autobiographical. Yet there are unmistakable biographical similarities: Like Alexis, Orlandersmith was raised in Harlem and grew up to be a writer.

This forceful, affecting and ultimately affirmative show -- currently on view in Center Stage's Head Theater -- proves how powerfully she learned to "use words."

"The Gimmick" tells the story of the friendship between two talented children. Alexis, an aspiring writer, and Jimmy, a budding painter, yearn to escape the ghetto and create a life in the arts.

First, however, they must escape all the "gimmicks" that conspire to hold them back. Orlandersmith uses the word "gimmick" -- usually as a noun, but sometimes as a verb -- to mean a variety of things. At its most specific, the word refers to drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

In a broader sense, it's the spiritual decay that comes from not inventing yourself, from making peace with defeat, phrases Alexis learns from her literary hero, James Baldwin.

The gimmicks are not unlike the obstacles that mythical heroes must overcome. Only instead of the whims of angry and malevolent gods, Alexis and Jimmy have to survive the lethal role models all around them, including drugged and drunken parents who beat them just because they can. "I gave birth to you/I can beat you/I feed you/I can beat you," begins one of the script's most poetically brutal segments.

Although "The Gimmick" is told from Alexis' point of view, Orlandersmith also portrays each of the other characters. A substantial woman with long copper-colored braids, she uses only two hardwood chairs as props, but her transformations succeed.

When Alexis meets him at age 7 or 8, Jimmy is a "shining, shining boy" with flecks of gold paint in his hair. Friendly but uneasy, he talks quickly, nervously shaking a leg and casting his eyes bashfully on the ground.

As a young girl, Alexis is also nervous, but she hides her insecurity under a guise of bravado. The device Orlandersmith uses to convey the disparity between Alexis' inner and outer selves is among the production's most clever and moving inventions. Showing Jimmy a short story she has written, Alexis tells us: "Outside I say, `I'm gonna be a famous writer one day'/inside I say, `Don't laugh at me.' "

Both children meet adults who believe in and encourage them through the years. Alexis' mentor is the librarian, who speaks in tones so warm and cultured, they're like an arm supportively encircling your shoulders. Jimmy's mentor is a school art teacher, who arranges for the young man's work to be exhibited in a downtown gallery. But while Jimmy tastes fame much earlier than Alexis, he lacks her ability to see the promise of the future.

Orlandersmith relates this bare-bones story in a manner that, under Chris Coleman's direction, occasionally sounds like a quiet, earnest sermon. But when she unleashes Alexis' anguish near the end, her lecturing is replaced by sheer emotion.

As much a tale about the necessity of friendship as the necessity of art, "The Gimmick" is, in the end, a relatively simple story about a complex subject -- the desire to not only survive, but also flourish.

"We were like kids anywhere," Alexis says in an early scene in which she and Jimmy and the neighborhood kids crowd around an ice cream truck eating ice cream cones.

But they aren't just anywhere. They're in Harlem, where, as she points out, sweetness, hope and beauty exist. They're just hard to find, and harder to hang onto.

`The Gimmick'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. May 7, matinees at 2 p.m. May 7, 13 and 14. Through May 14

Tickets: $24-$29

Call 410-332-0033

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