Staceyann Chin in Border/Clash
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Staceyann Chin in Border/Clash
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Staceyann Chin is Woman -- hear her roar! She has every reason to shout out loud and proudly. In her early 30s, Chin has already accomplished quite a lot, from being part of the Tony Award-winning ensemble of Def Poetry Jam to her complete self-acceptance as a lesbian. If that doesn't sound quite so remarkable, consider that she was raised in Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal; and consider also that this half-black, half-Chinese performer was abandoned by both parents upon her birth and brought up by a series of relatives who, for the mot part, didn't know how to handle the young spitfire with a copious head of hair.

Eventually, Chin grew into a woman who crosses borders yet never fits comfortably within any single group. Her journey is the subject of Border/Clash: A Litany of Desire, her exuberant solo show at The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker. The piece fits neatly into the mold of the theater's previous occupants -- solo performances by such artists as Sarah Jones and Geraldine Hughes (though Chin lacks their gift for mimicry) and agitprop dramas like The Exonerated and Guantanamo. Yet there's a freshness to this presentation that breathes new life into the house. (Some credit belongs to director Rob Urbinati, who has, among other things, wisely kept the proceedings down to just under 90 minutes.) Chin has even reconfigured the space a bit, enlarging the stage -- it's now a plexiglass-covered platform through which brightly colored fabric shines -- and thrusting it into the audience. She has no qualms about being "in your face" both figuratively and literally: she sometimes steps into the audience and, at other points during the show, strips to her skivvies to change costumes.

Remarkably fleet of foot and with a commanding voice that can move from a whisper to a bellow in seconds, Chin has charisma to spare. Armed with the perfect phrase to describe any situation, from the onset of puberty to the writing of a letter to a spurned suitor, she seduces us into believing that we're her close confidants as she talks of her past, present, and future. Only after the show ends do we realize that she's been selective in her confessions and, perhaps, a bit eager to please. Does Chin think that the audience couldn't handle the full force of her anger towards her parents? Or has her belief in Buddhism -- adopted partly because a Catholic priest tried to seduce her -- truly softened her bitterness towards a father who didn't even wait around to witness her birth and a mother so self-absorbed that she left her two children behind, visiting them just once before shunting them off to another set of relatives?

Chin even finds some humor in the most devastating moments of her life. As a college student at the prestigious University of the West Indies, she forged an identity as an totally out lesbian. While this declaration had its romantic advantages, including a near-relationship with the succinctly described Savannah Lane Parker, it also resulted in a near gang-rape in a bathroom by a group of Jamaican boys who were determined to cure her of her "illness."

When the show shifts to cover Chin's experiences in New York (she came here shortly after college), her mode of communication changes as well, from simple narration to the kind of slam poetry for which she first became famous. Her recreation of her debut at the NuYorican Poet's Café is particularly riveting. While not everyone will find this part of the show easily accessible, the richness of the language rewards close listening. All of us -- black or white, straight or gay, thick-haired or bald -- have a lot to learn from Staceyann Chin.