Bridge to Baraka and Naked Brazilian
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 8, 2012
This is a double bill of solo performances, each about 40 minutes in length, presented at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. Though they're quite different in terms of style and subject matter, both feature engaging writer-performers exploring their respective paths to self-expression. And both take us on journeys through—for me at least—fairly unfamiliar territory. I was glad to make the acquaintance of both of these artists.
The first on the program is Yvette Heyliger—or Yvette X, as she refers to herself in the show Bridge to Baraka. The Baraka in the title is Amiri Baraka, the poet/playwright who helped to forge the Black Arts Movement during the Civil Rights Era (before that he had been known as LeRoi Jones, but one of the tenets of his movement was rejection of the names slave owners bestowed on African American ancestors). The play traces Heyliger's life as a mixed-race child in Washington, D.C., and its suburban environs during roughly the same period that Jones became Baraka: she shares some of the feelings and experiences she went through as the daughter of a woman so fair-skinned that she easily "passed" for Caucasian when applying for her driver's license; she was, she tells us, too light to be accepted by blacks and too dark to be accepted by whites.
Heyliger has clearly carved out a successful life for herself since then, as actor and then playwright/activist (she's a notable campaigner for parity for women playwrights on the American stage). The play doesn't reveal that particular bridge, however, leaping ahead instead to the recent past, when Heyliger began to examine how the work that Baraka did to bring greater diversity and individual voices to American culture resonates with her own values and choices today. The play begins and ends with Heyliger reciting some of Baraka's poetry, which may feel incendiary or historically enlightening in an abstract way depending upon your point of view. Not being that familiar with Baraka's work, I found it interesting to hear some of it, but I think I would have liked Heyliger to end the play with something of her own instead.
After a brief break for a scene change, the second piece begins: Gustavo Pace's Naked Brazilian. (The title and postcard notwithstanding, there's no nudity in this show.) Pace is a recent immigrant from Brazil who has come to New York City to become an entertainer—his bio and this show reveal that he is trained as both an actor and a clown. Pace is enormously likable and engaging, and his stories, delivered in clear but accented English, touch on key events in his life that brought him to this place. He touches on conflicts with his father, his sexuality, and some of the wellsprings of his own art (the Marx Brothers being a notable one). He recreates pivotal events from his life; my favorite: a snippet of a production of Waiting for Godot (he played Estragon) in Portuguese.
Naked Brazilian, which is nicely directed by Lou Liberatore, is a fun showcase for Pace and promises good things to come from this talented newcomer to the New York stage.