nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2008
In the production history of Liberty City, included in the program, we learn that this play is the result of 400 pages of interviews between performer April Yvette Thompson and director Jessica Blank. "It quickly becomes clear," the note inform us, "that Thompson's family should be the center of the play."
If only Blank and Thompson had adhered to that notion, Liberty City might be a much tighter and more satisfying work than it is. Unfortunately, while the creators stick to Thompson's family for the first two-thirds of their show, the climax and conclusion of Liberty City is about the riots which broke out in Thompson's Miami neighborhood in 1980. This story—one I confess I don't remember hearing about when it happened—deserves to be told. But it deserves to be told fully and thoughtfully in its own show, and it has little to do with the colorful and personal tales Thompson has been relating to the audience up to that point.
These tales involve Thompson's unorthodox family: her father, son of Cuban and Bahamian immigrants who somehow obtained a thorough enough education in social studies to become an effective and significant leader of the African American community in Miami in the post-Civil Rights 1970s; her mother, who became active in her local church; her father's sister, a die-hard Earth Wind & Fire-loving party girl who became a drug addict when crack afflicted Miami in the late '70s; and most memorably Auntie Carolyn, the indomitable Bahamian lady who raised April's daddy (I will not reveal the surprising and unorthodox circumstances leading to this occurrence).
We meet these people in reminiscences that trace the first 11 years or so of April's life, when she grew up in this multi-cultural ghetto neighborhood. As is de rigueur in a show of this nature, Thompson impersonates all of these family members with vivid accents and physical characterizations. (I think she and Blank misstep, though, in having Thompson use the character's voice when that character is being quoted by another character; that feels unnatural and distracting.)
On the surface this has the makings of a tour de force, but unfortunately Liberty City doesn't hold up to scrutiny: in terms of both writing and acting, these people feel much more archetypal than real. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Thompson has pretty mixed feelings about most of the characters she portrays here, and that becomes problematic.
And then of course the whole family history is dropped in favor of Thompson's account of the riots. This material feels like it belongs in an entirely different play, and does nothing to illuminate the themes Liberty City has been heretofore developing.
So the piece is finally a disappointment, despite the really impressive set design by Antje Ellermann and the genuine enthusiasm and commitment conveyed by both Thompson and Blank.