nytheatre.com review by Andrew Rothkin
August 13, 2011
YA MAMA! is a richly woven tapestry of love, loss, strength and spirituality, beautifully written and exquisitely performed by the phenomenally gifted Nina Domingue, who jumps from the comedic to the dramatic to the poetic in an eye-blink as she inhabits a seemingly endless parade of sometimes mean, sometimes loving, sometimes wacky characters—or rather, real people from her life, past and present.
Before I expound on Domingue’s ample prowess as an artist, here’s my two cents on one-person pieces, in general:
While solo shows sometimes work, they so often fall into a wide array of traps—especially solo shows of the autobiographical variety. It often feels to me that the actor/writer is working out his/her personal issues before my eyes, as if I inadvertently stepped into some stranger’s therapy session unannounced, listening to someone wallow in their deepest of sorrows and personal problems, which I can neither relate to nor care about. What’s more, such actor/writer theatre often seems to be mere vanity pieces, with little deeper to say beyond “Look at me! Don’t I rock?!”
Of course I have seen solo theatre I’ve enjoyed—and every now and again, I catch one that is magical and meaningful.
YA MAMA! is just such a piece. Domingue, an eloquent artist of more colors than Crayola, and who has the refined skill of someone twice her age at least, does not merely unveil the darkest times of her life, but enlightens as well, telling a moving tale that pulled me in. Her story, chiefly surrounding issues of motherhood—her mother’s suicide as a very young child, her love/hate relationship with her father’s second wife, the full-of-life aunts who eventually took her (and her sister) in, and finally, the joys and challenges of being a mother herself—are fascinating and tender and funny, and one with which I could—somehow—relate. While my upbringing was different from her upbringing and while I will never be a mother, so much was universal...
Domingue transforms from character to character, each distinct and clear, often three, four, five personalities in the same minute; but unlike some of the aforementioned divas of the stage who believe it’s all by, about and for them, them, them, Domingue does not merely create a show around some flat, stock characters she learned to mimic -- but rather, her adept portrayals are imperative as a means to share her story. Though accomplished in character and comedy, poetic language and movement, her strongest suit as an actor might just be with drama. Regardless of whom she portrays, even when playing children, her dad or the people who hurt her the most, she connects very deeply and fully, flowing with believable and moving emotion. One of the highlights of YA MAMA! for me, in fact, was her “reading” of the letter her stepmother wrote after a very emotionally, mentally and physically hurtful fight. She revealed the woman’s insecurity and pain, finding compassion and understanding where a lesser dramatist/performer might have found only anger and vilification.
The show is clean and sharp, thanks to director Cathy Hartenstein. As everything the actress does seems to come straight from her core, I was unable to tell where Domingue’s work starts and Hartenstein ends, or where Hartenstein’s starts and Domingue’s ends. It is seamless, a very effective blend of talents.
Indeed, Kenya Woods choreography adds a great deal to the show, mostly theatricalizing the poetic segments in a figurative, heartfelt physicality. The lighting, by Rob Peck, makes great use of the limited instruments of the space, illuminating moment and emotional context as much as the stage itself. Javan Nelson is the stage manager; it all looked smooth to me.
My only suggestion to the Domingue/Hartenstein team—as they continue to develop YA MAMA!—is to add just a bit more humor towards the latter third of the show. As the drama increases in intensity, a few more moments of lightness—perhaps a comment or two from her simply adorable aunts or a quick glimpse back to her delightful child self—might aid in keeping us enrapt in all the drama. After all, it is in our lowest, most tragic moments that we need our humor the most.
Nitpicking aside, go see this show! Don’t go just to see Domingue’s and Hartenstein’s magnificent work. Don’t just go to see a solo show worth seeing. Don’t even go just because I said to.
Go because it’s a funny, endearing, passionate evening of theatre.
And trust me—ya mama wants you to go!