"I want them to look at me, to look me in the eyes," states Dael Orlandersmith, using a British accent to portray one of at least ten different characters she plays in her tour de force solo show Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, at Berkeley Rep through June 23.
After 90 minutes, the audience was definitely squirming in its seats. Orlandersmith tackles a barrage of characters, each of whom related in some degree to the subjects of mental, physical, and sexual abuse of boys and men. But despite the challenging material, I do not think many viewers would have wanted the play to be any shorter. ("There was hope in it," I heard an audience member say as we walked out of the theater.)
Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer finalist for her 2002 Yellowman, embodies a variety of people tied to the many facets of violence: onlookers, perpetrators, victims — and those who are perpetrators and victims. She represents a range of ages and ethnicities: children, a Latino father and mother, an African American hustler (aged 13), Irish parents. Her elocution is impeccable.
Dressed in plain clothing, she remains onstage for the duration, signaling scene changes by turning and walking from the back to the front of the stage — where she resumes with completely different mannerisms. The stage looks a bit like a large ship plank or the abandoned foundation of a small apartment, very broken around the edges.
Huge, industrial-looking lights evoke the prisons, foster homes, crack dens, and seedy spots for sex solicitation that background her stories; they raise and lower for different monologues. Character names are projected along the wall after the first few appear, to help the audience keep track when they are revisited.
One character — a boy taunted in the school yard for being a "trick-baby," a child of a prostitute — escapes his abusive family life and becomes a writer (a character that Orlandersmith may have been able to draw most from her own experience as a writer who works to give voice to those who are oppressed by violent circumstances). As an adult, the writer works in foster homes, trying to break the cycle of violence and help children in a way he was never assisted in his darkest days.
But even though he understands why these children act out so badly, they still test his patience and he finds out one of the many corruptions in the foster care system — he does not get in trouble for hitting the child because they are allowed to spank children "who are bad." When he learns about this rule, the character realizes his mistake; his awareness of his own actions and his need to challenge the system and make positive change inspires hope.
In the playbill, Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone speaks about Orlandersmith's grace and understanding in approaching such a dark and seemingly impossible subject. He explains she shows us hope amid desperation and brutality. Although certain characters were much harder to handle than others, each one certainly gave the audience much to consider. Orlandersmith shows us how abuse is cyclical, it is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Hard, but certainly possible.
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men also addresses bureaucratic problems — compounded by stereotypes and ignorance — that stand in the way of breaking this cycle of violence. A Latino boy growing up in the Brooklyn projects with his mentally ill, sexually abusive mother and in-denial father meets with a social worker, who tells him “It says here in your case file that you were molested by your mother. But you must be mistaken. Men molest men, women, girls, and boys. Women are mothers, mothers do not molest children — women do not molest their sons.”
With this example, Orlandersmith shows we still have some fundamental archetypes that need to be broken down, and double standards between the sexes is one of them. Both men and women can be aggressors. Although her play points out this harsh reality (and the frequent denial of it in our society), she also explores how characters break from their abusive pasts.
Thankfully, Orlandersmith provides enough balance in the play to keep the material from getting too uncomfortable and depressing. My personal favorite character was the “unofficial mayor of Central Park,” whose New York accent and physicality was hilarious and completely likeable.
I applaud Orlandersmith for her bravery in tackling this subject, and for her ability to explore her characters so deeply. Black n Blue Boys doesn't engage in finger-pointing; instead, it presents each character openly. Although she knew certain details might cause revulsion, anger, and shock, this talented writer-performer encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions in the end. It is a truthful, compassionate look at a challenging topic, which, in the words of her final character, “doesn’t have to be all black and blue.”
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men
Through June 23, $14.50-73
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison, Berk.