Born Bad

By Debbie Tucker Green
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Featuring Heather Alicia Simms, Quincy Tyler Bernstein, Crystal A. Dickinson

Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street
production web site:

April 7, 2011 (opening) — April 24, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 8, 2011

(L-R) Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Elain Graham, Heather Alicia Simms (seated on floor), Michael Rogers, Crystal A. Dickinson. Photo: Michael Nagle for The New York Times.

Wood slats, black box — carpet on the playing surface, wall paper far upstage, poles of simple lights, and single bulbs bursting.  Light and shadows evoke passing time or rising and setting suns or shadowy secret stories or simple lovely stage pictures. This is a bare bones set to illuminate a bare bones script that articulates the baldest of human defenses, aggression, resistance, revelation — presented to us in precisely etched performances.  Shards of language.  Shards of emotion.  Shards of a family.  And pitch perfect theatre.

The playbill is a broadsheet with basic information and no images to distract us (or perhaps to guide us — I wasn’t able to finally assign actress to generally named character role until I reviewed other writers on this production later).  And all this is superficial detail: the six performers present a family of three sisters and a brother, a mother and a father, all sharing a secret of selective abuse and family member complicity in burying, blaming, obscuring distant memories.  If you aren’t seeking to assign particular credit for specific character portrayals to a particular actor name, it is irrelevant which generic name applies to which. This story is universal and specific, loving and horrific, explosive and a kind of resolution that haunts.

And as will happen — truth will out.  We are not informed what has compelled our oldest daughter Dawta (Heather Alicia Simms) to demand of her mother at the outside of the play’s action “say it,” but it has occurred, in the past we now assume.  The young adult siblings Sister #1 (Quincy Tyler Bernstein) and Sister #2 (Crystal A. Dickinson) and Brother (LeRoy James McClain) confront each other and their mostly silent parents Mum (Elain Grahm) and Dad (Michael Rogers) for the course of a taut sixty minute experience about past secrets that bind them together in their current roles.  Dad, we soon realize, was the perpetrator of past deeds when the now adult children were young.  Oldest child Dawta attempts to break through the resistance, the silence, the walls of resurrected order the siblings have created to paper over and push away these past actions — father is silent, mother is fuming (and insists she did it to save the other children … this child was expendable … this child was “born bad”), the middle sister says she remembers at some moments and forgets at others.  The youngest resents the reminder of past pain and flaunts her different experience in the same family — why bring this up, she insists, it was your fault and you only bring unhappiness.  The brother brings all the storytelling and gamesmanship to an end with a final revelation of his own that pierces everyone’s illusions.

Playwright Debbie Tucker Green has crafted a story of family secret keeping and a familiar ostracizing dynamic in families where abuse occurs with power and theatricality.  Director Gardiner creates still lives in repose for scenes that alternate between silent family portraits, to action and dialogue filled diatribes and revelations.

Stage set (designed by Mimi Lien) begins with five chairs to start, and only one upright. Before the action begins, while studying the set in light and shadow (designed by Michael Chybowski) I ponder how they are to be used.  Six characters according to the broadsheet and five chairs —  will this be a game of musical chairs in which there always will be one man out?  As it turns out, this element of the staging is achingly, evocatively, powerfully spot on.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 10, 2011)

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