Studio Theatre consistently produces works that are challenging in terms ideas and format. Motherstruck challenges in both respects. Written and performed by Staceyann Chin, the solo play tells the author's story, beginning in Jamaica, where she was born and spent her younger years as an unhappy girl, and ending in America, a grown and famous woman.
In Jamaica, Chin knew she was drawn to other girls, though homosexuality was illegal. Boys were cruel to her; a gang of 13 boys ripped off her clothes to punish her for being a lesbian; her mother abandoned her. The aunt and grandmother who raised her were no kinder. As a teenager, her greatest fear was that she would get pregnant.
Finally, in 1998, Chin decided to leave Jamaica and came to Brooklyn, where she was recognized as a considerable poet at the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe. She found many friends in America – both male and female – and was taken home by a man named Peter who, as Staceyann says, took in "strays."
They were married at City Hall in 1999. But when Peter found out that he was dying of cancer just before his 30th birthday, Staceyann realized she was doing something wrong. She had become famous for being "the lesbian who lost her husband." Her lifestyle of serial monogamy was the problem, she decided. She needed a child.
Peter's younger brother agreed to be her sperm donor, and on her 35th birthday, Chin signed up for a regimin of injections. Finally, after much praying to Jesus – and several other deities – her three pregnancy-kit sticks showed a positive result, on Mother's Day, no less.
Then the hard part started: first trimester of nausea, followed by frequent trips to the hospital. Chin told herself, "If I lose this baby, I'll never forgive myself." With her child in her arms at last, Chin asked, "What do I do now?" No one had ever shown her how to take care of a child. Her mother appeared once when Chin was young, wearing elegant scarves and speaking perfect French, then drifted out of Chin's life forever. It is only then in the author's life that she asks herself, "How could my mother leave me?" But Chin doesn't have time for fantasies. She is faced with realities: endless loads of laundry, a summons to pay the rent, and the need to go back to performing to make money. So she and her baby hit the road.
Chin is very slender and tall, her height accentuated by her crimson Mohawk-style hairdo. She speaks constantly and rapidly, telling the story of her life nearly without pausing for a breath. Her anger at Jamaica and her family is apparent in both halves of the show. Once she comes to America, however, her personality changes. It happens again after she has her daughter. Chin's performance hovers close to cliché a few times before the end ("wherever...my daughter is, that's home"; "there's no manual on parenting"), but it doesn't matter, because the clichés are true.
Director Matt Torney has Chin circling around the small floor of the Milton Theater, occasionally running up its aisles into the audience to change focus and shift her energy around the theater. Torney's approach is very effective.
Set designer Kristen Robinson has created a round, silver-floored central playing area. An ottoman sits in the center. The back wall of the theater is curved and made of bricks. Lighting designer Dante Olivia Smith warms this area with a variety of colors, depending on what is happening in the story.
There is only one break in the action of Motherstruck. After Chin gives birth, she takes off the printed sundress she has been wearing throughout the first half of the show (costumes by Brandee Mathies), puts it away in the ottoman, and puts on another, looser dress over the blue tights and aqua bra — a physical change from of the woman she was in the beginning and the one she becomes.
Motherstruck is an astonishing work, not only because Chin speaks impressively quickly and (nearly) without stopping for 90 minutes, but also because she offers the audience such a clear picture of her inner emotional life. Motherstruck is a realistic, funny, and unique vision of one woman's journey to happiness.
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