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Theatre in Review: MotherStruck! (Lynn Redgrave Theater)

Staceyann Chin. Photo: Timmy Blupe

There's been a lot of discussion lately about alternative energy sources, and, surprisingly, nobody has mentioned StaceyAnn Chin. A visit to the Lynn Redgrave Theater will correct that: The woman is a wonder, a fierce, bantam figure sporting a Mohawk that looks like a hedgerow perched on the top of her skull, a perpetual motion machine who prowls the stage -- no, she patrols it -- looking for new examples of hypocrisy and bigotry that she can wither into dust solely with the corrosive power of her scorn. Indeed, the stage can't contain her; every few minutes, driven by fury, or panic, or sheer nerves, she marches into the audience, annexing the aisles for the purposes of telling us her story.

And what a story: The exposition alone is the stuff of several theatre pieces. Born in Jamaica to a mother who took a permanent powder when Chin was one month old -- her father doesn't even rate a mention -- she grew up under the icily disapproving glare of an aunt whose main concern was warning against unwed motherhood. The lady didn't know it, but she was preaching to the choir; as a college student, Chin realized that she was attracted to women. If it took her a while to understand her nature, she notes that in Jamaica "being gay is still an abomination," and after all it was 1995 and there was no Internet to surf for information. ("If I were being interviewed by Oprah today, she would take my hand and say, 'Staceyann, that was your "Aha!" moment.'") Still, one advantage is immediately apparent: "Being lesbian means I can have sex before marriage and never get pregnant."

After a horrific incident in which she is abused by gang of male students, she flees to New York, "an undocumented immigrant," where she wanders into the Nuyorican Poets Café and finds an outlet for her incandescent personality and often savage way with words. (If the name rings a bell, it may be because you caught her in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.) She marries her best friend, Peter, a gay man, and forms a loving, if slightly nutty, ménage: "Myself, my girlfriend, my husband, his mother." Even Chin sees, and enjoys, the inherent absurdity of the arrangement: "Every night we fall asleep/Exhausted from living out loud/Every morning we awake, appropriately angry and easily articulate." The plan, of course, is to have many children.

This little paradise is brought to an abrupt end when Peter, on the cusp of 30, dies of cancer. Chin, bereft, is also single again, but, she realizes, she is a citizen of New York, "the place where if you throw one rock into a crowd, you hit seven lesbians." And so she sets out in search of a suitable partner. It's a rocky ride, perhaps because of her outsized expectations: "I actually have the whole thing figured out. First, I'll locate the woman of my dreams. Then we will spend two point two five years reveling in the magic of our romance. Then, over careful, respectful, non-hostile planning, we'd select the perfect sperm donor, who would have to, of course, be the exact combination of both our ethnicities, to assist in conceiving the radical feminist ninja messiah we intend to release upon the patriarchy."

It's putting it mildly to note that things don't go according to plan. Among other things, there are months of dating hell, followed by the resolution to go it alone; the search for a sperm donor; and a fibroid tumor that must be removed if she is to get pregnant. When she finally conceives -- after a hilariously and graphically depicted insemination process -- there are epics bouts of morning sickness and episodes of bleeding that force her into bed rest, where she imagines names for her future offspring such as "Angela Davis Garvey Chin."

And when she has the baby, having all but bankrupted herself and caused her landlord to threaten eviction for nonpayment of rent, the challenges really begin. Facing for the first time the difficulties of keeping her career going while raising a child, she embarks on an exhausting tour, infant in tow; endures more bruising confrontations with a mother whose self-absorption would give Joan Crawford pause; and, seeking out other places to live, returns to Jamaica on "a fact-finding mission" and a fateful encounter with the aunt she left behind. How fully did Chin's aunt have her over a barrel? As Chin, carrying her baby daughter, Zuri, approaches her aunt's home, she realizes to her horror that she has fulfilled the older woman's prophecy and become an unwed mother.

There's much more before Chin, experiencing a wild ride through Brooklyn in a police car driven by a lesbian cop who is also a fan, realizes that New York is the crazy city of her dreams. And it's fair to say that MotherStruck! breezes by in similar fashion, filled as it is with pearly moments and riotously accurate observations: Chin, standing up at a party and shouting, "Does anyone want to donate sperm to a rapidly aging lesbian?" Chin, going into labor while watching, on YouTube, the first female prime minister of Jamaica make a speech about gay rights. Chin, fending off a religious fanatic in her doctor's office, who preaches that in-vitro fertilization is a sin before God. Also: shopping for a combination girlfriend and co-parent, and realizing, "I'm dating for two people;" musing about gentrification ("People cuss about the rents rising, but when white people come, they bring sushi"); and making short work of a homophobic texter responding to her Twitter feed. ("He misspelled the words 'faggot' and 'bitch' and 'dyke.' If you are going to send hate mail, you should at least know how to spell the basic lexicon.")

Even if we can all agree that Chin is a genuine National Weather Service-certified force of nature, it's worth noting that this is the second comic production in one month to be directed by Cynthia Nixon, and both of them feature crack timing and an invigorating pace. Clearly, Nixon is a woman of many parts and may soon find herself in demand for her skill at guiding projects to the stage. The production also features a simple circular set by Kristen Robinson and a most amusing sound design, by Elisheba Ittoop, that comments on Chin's admittedly overwrought personality by slyly underlining certain moments with bits of "Carmina Burana" and "Theme from Rocky." The lighting, by Bradley King and Dante Olivia Smith, catches many of the star's moods -- for example, switching to a clinical white fluorescent look for a trip to the emergency room and using bursts of acid yellow striplight during a homophobe's rant.

It's no surprise that, given her enormous determination, Chin pulls herself together or that MotherStruck! ends on a ragingly upbeat note the draws on her considerable experience at poetry slams. And there's really no question that, even given the singular nature of her odyssey, many, many members of the audience will find much to identify with. Clearly, Chin is a handful, but she is well aware of -- and brazenly, joyfully -- celebrates it. I'm betting you will, too. -- David Barbour

(16 December 2015)

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