The Paul Robeson Theatre goes out on a limb in its latest production.
“Sex’d,” a play written by, directed by and starring TaNisha Fordham sets out to discuss the challenges, contradictions and taboos of sexuality in ways the theater likely never has before.
Artistic director Paulette Harris addressed this new venture in her opening remarks to the audience, speaking of a new wave of theatrical voices she felt compelled to bring to the PRT stage, at home in the African American Cultural Center on Masten Avenue. The theater has long portrayed facets of its audience’s cultural experiences and identities, focusing on a variety of conversation starters.
With “Sex’d,” the company brings more to the surface about human sexuality, primarily for the younger set, than some might have considered feasible. This multigenerational, family-centric, often religiously themed stage is the home of good, nurturing, expository storytelling, yes, but not typically challenging or controversial storytelling. For this breakout alone, it is worth seeing.
Fordham is a powerhouse here. A Buffalo native, and currently of Greensboro, N.C., Fordham has a strong, centered, passionate voice. You won’t have trouble picking her out of this large, albeit cohesive ensemble. She towers over her cast, both in stature and focus. It is clear whose words these are, and who shaped their delivery out of these strong mouths. That’s a strength in this instance, where it might easily be an unfair excuse for ensemble-crashing elsewhere. This is a tight group, and despite their leader’s presence, or because of it, they blend exquisitely.
The show’s structure – two-person vignettes, sketch comedy, dramatic monologues, group choreopoems – is less cohesive on the whole; not a surprise, considering how many formats are utilized. The many textures are well integrated, though, and transitions are generally seamless. Diverse, popular music is used in astute context.
Directing is easily Fordham’s strength among all her duties. Her words, while wrapped in integrity, are rife with clichés and generalities. Her acting, while ostensibly a passion of hers, is often stuck at one loud volume. Her directing, though, displays a keen understanding of layering, the subtlety of segues, the nuance of a properly executed lighting cue. She is a conscious director, and ironically elevates her own contributions elsewhere. Her cast carries her torch with duty and service.
Alphonso Walker Jr. is a standout in all of his scenes, especially in his portrayal as an Urkel-like nerd confused for a pervy misogynist. Walker is adept at listening to his scene partners, the fruits of which we see in his reactionary emotions. This might be his college age or his freshness to the stage – his credits include a production of August Wilson’s “Fences” at Daemen College, where he minors in theater – but he’s refreshing to watch. A rare combination of talent in one performer, he’s one to look for.
So, too, is Erica Dennis, who shifts brilliantly between a crack-addicted mother prostituting her young son (the focused, fresh-faced, eager Malik Springs), to a bubbly young girl who tells her story of sexual abuse with the help of her Barbie dolls. Dennis handles this intense subject matter with an artist’s brush. Hers are two distinct voices of this immense, wretched narrative, and she delivers them independent of each other. Such range, such focus, such wisdom. Like Walker, you lean in to watch her.
Every ensemble of young performers needs an older couple to remind them of their youth. Hugh Davis and Linda Barr are the ideal duo. Each is a seasoned, trim, evocative presence. Their scene in which an aged couple humorously reminisces about their sexual chemistry, both in younger and older days, is sweet, rightly comical and exemplary of its format. Barr is also a standout in sections that include group dance, where she embodies physical characterization without the burden of language. Davis, often the pillar of his productions, is a fine bottom for this cast of young dreamers.
There’s a lot of great performance work here, and on the whole, about 85 percent of something perfect going on. The engines are roaring, and the train is ready to leave the station. But with material that oscillates between vagueness, vapidity and heartfelt wonder, the concerns of human sexuality, let alone in this particular community, are not exactly explored. Little is mentioned outside of heteronormative identities except a beautiful, brief, near-wordless piece about transgendered dress. The few positive sexual interactions are dealt with the way “very special episodes” of family sitcoms glossed over them.
“Sex’d” is a strong entry into something more truthful, more engaging, more illustrative of this theater’s core audience. The inclusion of so many bright young talents, on and off stage, is a huge breath of fresh air. Let’s just hope this conversation is one that the Paul Robeson Theatre intends on continuing.
When: Presented by Paul Robeson Theatre through Sunday
Where: African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
Info: 884-2013 or africancultural.org