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Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires by and starring Staceyann Chin at the Culture Project

An Afro-Chinese Jamaican Lesbian, Staceyann Chin embodies the clashing borders of her solo show's title. Her restless kineticism, the tautness of her lean angular weapon of a body (a " girl with arms and abandonment issues," she calls herself), the deep fire of her Caribbean-accented tongue all explode with the energy of those repressed at the margins for too long. As she first showed in her bits for Def Poetry Jam, Chin lays bare her deepest intimacies with a stridency that is as confrontational as it is confessional. She doesn't beg for your sympathy, she demands it.
The production by Rob Urbinati is surprisingly slick for downtown, almost to a fault; with tons of precision sound and light cues, and richly colored visuals, we're far from the rough-hewn keepin' it real bare bones of Def Jam and the Nuyorican poets cafe (where Chin, as she recounts, got her start). I'm not sure Chin's stories are theatrical enough to hold up under such intense decoration--it's her energy and constant act of resistance that's the show. The first half consists of reminiscences of her fractured childhood in Jamaica, which--despite her unique identity crises--still consist mostly of familiar girl-to-woman rites hardly unique to the West Indies. (An intense face-off against a potential gang rape is the chilling exception.)
Then, midway through, Chin starts relying on her intense spoken-word skills, sometimes just lifting passages from her repertoire wholesale. I remember how impressed I was by Def Poetry as some of the best verse-speaking I've heard on Broadway lately. (The supposed Shakespeareans at the Public could learn something from these "slammers".) Chin certainly has the chops to mesmerize an audience. But the slam form still strikes me as limited for theatre--it's all self-expression without reflection, let alone irony. Chin's best moments, surprisingly, come in recounting a bizarro-world appearance on CNN--because she actually reveals doubt and vulnerability (over capitulating to the establishment in exchange for making her grandmother proud).
By the end one has to wonder if her subtitle is well-chosen; my Oxford American Dictionary defines litany as: "a long monotonous recital." At 90 minutes, the recital isn't that long at least, and Chin's palpable "desire" is definitely contagious.

Other reviews: Village Voice (6/21); NY Times (6/21) ; NY Post (6/27)

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