Review: A poet and performer tries to put her life in focus in the heart
Coming out isn’t as hard as it used to be – at least we like to think it is. But is this true for everyone? Despite the strides we’ve been able to make in recognizing the inalienable rights of LGBTQ lives (putting aside recent rumors of future setbacks), how easily you can live your life openly depends on a lot of things, including where you are, where you come from, and how those around you react to difference.
In the new solo piece Heart, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theater in an Audible production (in association with Kate Pakenham Productions), London actor and playwright Jade Anouka reminds those of us who live in culturally progressive metropolitan bubbles that society and the world in general have a long history of ways to go in accepting ‘others’. The 70-minute show incorporates Anouka’s poetic storytelling skills into what is presumably an autobiographical account of her journey to self-awareness, leaving behind a life that felt prescribed by the world in exchange for one that smelled authentic and his own.
The difficulty with a story like this is how to distinguish it from the myriad of similar accounts (theatrical and otherwise) that we have seen or read about over the decades. Anouka’s passionate poetry is one of the ways in which Heart stands ; its words flow with the feel of a long free-verse poem occasionally punctuated with rhyme and a slam-poetry vibe. This makes Anouka’s work enjoyable to listen to (no doubt one of the reasons why Audible chose to partner with it). But despite a strong performance and a creative team determined to bring those words to life on stage, Heart does not translate into captivating theatre.
Anouka, decked out in blues and purples (costume designed by Emily Rebholz), begins her piece by telling us that although she is a black woman, “This is not a black story / Or a woman’s story / This is maybe a story / For all the misfits, all those who have ever felt “other”. “It’s a welcome attempt at inclusion that invites all audiences, although we reserve our doubts about the possibility of excluding of ourselves characteristics that inevitably shape our identities and histories. . She goes on to talk about her marriage, at age 24, to a man whose mental illness contributed to their decision to divorce, her joyous promiscuous embrace, her temporary retirement in the arms of another man, and then her discovered that his most fulfilling life partner was a woman. Coming from a religious home, Epiphany causes an uncomfortable conversation with her mother.
As any LGBTQ person who has tried to discuss their gayness with a religious person throwing Bible verses all over the place knows, such conversations go around in circles at lightning speed. This part of Anouka’s narrative saps the energy of the scene as she recounts her counter-arguments, using the ineffectual ploy of logic, to her mother. In such moments, we become aware of Anouka’s performance rather than the story, and it seems more obvious that, despite her strong acting skills, this narrative isn’t best suited for the stage.
Under the muscular direction of Ola Ince, the rest of the production seems determined to convince us that yes. Arnulfo Maldonado’s billowing set design of red and pink curtains, which might suggest the chambers of a heart, has a bombast that simply feels like he’s trying too hard to make Heart in the theatre. Jen Schriever’s lighting also draws attention to itself, accentuating every little change and mood with dramatic lighting. Fitz Patton’s sound design, along with his and Renell Shaw’s original music, fits better with Anouka’s poetry – and again makes a good case for an Audible production.
But it’s Anouka’s words that matter here. They are powerful, beautiful and, in its moving conclusion, hopeful. A production with fewer bells and whistles might have allowed audiences and the misfits among us to contemplate them more carefully. Anouka’s game certainly Is have a heart, but it suits the ear better than the eye.