Oranges Like the Sun
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
January 20, 2005
Oranges Like the Sun is a one-woman show written and performed by Judylee Vivier, a white South African woman, and directed by Tom Bullard. It's not a play about apartheid—at least not directly—but Vivier does make references to the segregated society where she lived when she was a child and how certain people perceived her when she moved to New York as a young adult to attend NYU for graduate school on a Fulbright scholarship. The show is really more of a run-of-the-mill autobiographical story of a girl who wants to be an actress against her mother’s wishes, and who moves very far from home to do so.
Vivier begins the play as a small child crawling around on the floor as if looking for something. She finds what I took to be a grasshopper and plays with it. She tells about her childhood, how beautiful her mother was, how charming and funny her father. She introduces her nanny, Gladys, who calls her “Coo,” a term of endearment meaning “chicken” and explains that Gladys had to ride at the back of the bus when they rode together and take a different bus altogether if she was alone because there was a separate bus line for black people.
As is requisite for this type of show, Vivier plays many characters—her mother, her father, her Gran, her cousins, her grandfather, even a South African flight attendant. Since the show spans a long period of time, we see how some of these characters evolve, and Vivier portrays their changes with some success. For example, in the beginning, her mother is vibrant and cheerful and by the end, she has become disoriented. My favorite character is Gladys, her nanny. She speaks another language, combined with broken English. It is very obvious that Gladys cares very much for young Judy and that they are very close.
In the beginning, when her character is very young, Vivier overhears the adults speaking. Her grandfather talks about apartheid. She learns about her cousin’s sugar diabetes, her family’s concerns about her aunt’s boyfriend, whom they don’t trust because he is dark. In these segments, we really get an accurate sense of a child’s point of view as she conveys information to the audience in a matter-of-fact way, not understanding what is happening with any real adult perspective.
The play’s greatest strength is probably Vivier’s attention to detail. For example, at the top of the show, she describes her great aunt peeling an orange at great length. At the end, when Vivier reveals she teaches poetry, I wasn’t surprised, given her obvious love of language and her ability to be so specific.
At the top of the second act is a long sequence in which Vivier describes what she experienced as a brand new New Yorker. She doesn’t say anything particularly original (so much noise, so much walking, great food, lots and lots of people, big buildings, etc.), but I liked this sequence because of Vivier’s high energy and how her movement combined with the music. Eric Nightengale’s sound design uses jazzy instruments, clanking piano, and other sounds in this part, which are much different from the rest of the show. I enjoyed this section even if it might have been too cliche text-wise to work.
Randall Richards’s set is a large, almost empty space, with brightly painted walls with brown, yellow, blue, orange, deep red, and a large sun painted on the center of the floor. On the upstage wall is a large screen, which changes colors as some of the scenes change. Over all, the set design evokes a warm, tropical, summery feeling. Paul Whitaker’s lights dim and brighten at different times, sometimes creating a perfect summer day.
The show, at about 2 hours and 15 minutes, is in severe need of editing. It seems a trap of the autobiographical show is that there’s so much information, so many vivid details and memories. Vivier tells the story of her family, the first boy she liked, her dreams, her first job in New York, her mother’s aging, two Christmases, a cab ride from the airport, sanctions on South Africa, her apartment, and so much more. Though she does it all with a lot of love, Vivier would do well to use this material to create a shorter, more focused play with a clearer theme.