Jeannette Bayardelle in <i>Shida</i> at Ars Nova.
Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida at Ars Nova.
(© Walter McBride)

The name "Shida," translated to English from its original Swajili, literally means "difficulty" — an appropriate choice considering the list of tragedies the central-character fights to overcome during this 70-minute solo musical, now receiving its world premiere at Ars Nova. Unfortunately, the piece as a whole is about as subtle as its title.

Best known for her performance as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway (where she replaced the original LaChanze), Jeannette Bayardelle ambitiously performs Shida, the multi-character solo musical that she both penned and composed. Adapted from a true story (though we don't know whose true story), Bayardelle seems to have woven elements of her former Broadway character into her new Gospel-tinged musical.

A period of childhood sexual abuse sets Shida on a downward spiral from her early days as a bright-eyed, ambitious fourth-grade student to her rock bottom as a promiscuous, drug-addicted college dropout. To her credit, Bayardelle bravely chooses to bring an explicit depiction of Shida's sexual abuse to the stage, though the lack of nuance in the accompanying song, "Uncle Steve," makes for an experience that is more uncomfortable than it is powerful. Throughout the piece, directed by Andy Sandberg, Bayardelle's lyrics tend to spoon-feed us every bit of subtext and emotion until there is nothing left for us to chew on ourselves. She does offer a few satisfyingly soulful melodies, delivered with a strong, Broadway-caliber voice (though she wanders into screaming a few too many times for my taste), but none of the tunes manage to stick in our brains long enough to hum on our way out the door.

Admittedly, criticizing a true story for its unoriginality is delicate terrain, but the ability to anticipate each step along the way drains the truly heartbreaking tale of it of its potential poignancy. Cramming such a large volume of plot into such a short performance window also forces Bayardelle's characters into this trap of predictability. While she achieves some depth with her protagonist, she fills in the rest of the play with a collection of two-dimensional stock characters: the maternal steady hand, the caring elderly teacher, and the tell-it-like-it-is best friend (a feisty girl named Jackie, whom she uses as a vehicle to show off her vocal gymnastics).

While Bayardelle's characters need more development, she capably performs them all, displaying a genuine talent for storytelling as she unabashedly throws herself into each of her personas (with the help of signature props or clothing items assigned to each character by costume designer Michael McDonald). Even if you leave with less than positive feelings about the show, you can't help but admire Bayardelle's charisma as she interacts with patrons at their seats, solicits applause while holding an endless high belt (listen for howling dogs), and even offers a sing-along encore in which the enraptured audience is more than happy to participate.

Yet these moments, however charming they may be, guide Shida into an even deeper identity crisis than that in which she already finds herself, for a young girl's tragically self-destructive journey hardly seems an appropriate time to ham it up for a crowd. Bayardelle's sporadic attempts to lighten the mood instead cross the pandering line, establishing a tone better suited for a motivational lecture than the dramatic performance she intends to present. Nonetheless, for those who see glimmers of themselves in the tragic, yet hopeful character Shida, the heart of the story is sure to resonate.