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Birdie Blue

S. Epatha Merkerson is riveting in the title role of Cheryl L. West's intriguing but flawed play. logo
S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
S. Epatha Merkerson is riveting in the title role of Cheryl L. West's Birdie Blue; unfortunately, her performance is not enough to rescue this intriguing but flawed work. The action of this fragmented memory play spans decades as it chronicles Birdie's life and loves, particularly her relationships with her third husband, Jackson (Charles Weldon), and her only son, Bam (Billy Porter).

As played by Merkerson, Birdie is a charismatic woman full of hopes and dreams. An admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, she is devastated by his assassination, which figures prominently in the play -- especially in the sequence depicting the rift that comes to exist between herself and Bam. Birdie is no saint, and Merkerson is adept at displaying the character's more unsavory qualities while still making her a sympathetic figure. She can be abusive to both son and husband. After she slaps Bam for the first time, she chillingly confesses to the audience, "once you start something, habit set in. And hitting something I love more than life ain't a habit I ever meant to take up."

In moments such as this, the play makes a powerful statement as to the complexities of human relationships. Birdie Blue also examines the African-American experience from a variety of historical vantage points. When Birdie and the young Bam take a "dream drive" through a white neighborhood in the early '60s, they're stopped by a white police officer. On the evening of Dr. King's assassination, Bam brings to the house a white woman named Chloe, prompting an angry response from his mother.

Porter has the unenviable challenge of playing four different characters -- Bam, Little Pimp, Sook, and Minerva -- at various ages and stages. Bam, for instance, is seen as an infant, a young boy, a troubled teen, and an angry adult. Most of the time, this results in surface portrayals that are more about the actor's costume changes (Emilio Sosa is the designer) than a nuanced approach to the roles. Porter is moving and effective in Bam's final scene, but it's unclear why all four parts were handed to one actor. The production may have worked better had this not been the case.

Weldon exudes charm when depicting Jackson in his prime, contrasting sharply with the sad, feeble shell of a man that Birdie must keep tied to a bed in order to keep him from hurting himself. The actor is particularly heartrending in a scene where he pathetically tries to keep Birdie from beating him after he's soiled the bedsheets.

Director Seret Scott has failed to clarify the transitions in time and space within the play. While there is some intentional chronological slippage here, it shouldn't leave the audience confused about the ages of the characters and/or the years in which the various scenes are set. Anna Louizos's dilapidated set is visually striking but the staging makes it appear to indicate only one location, whereas at least three different places in which Birdie lived are supposedly represented.

Also puzzling are the multiple references to letters that Birdie writes. Siblings Sook and Minerva come by her house to pick them up, but neither the contents of these letters nor the reasons for Birdie's inability to mail them herself are ever really explained. (It's suggested that these might be letters to the dead, but that's unclear.)

The denouement of Birdie Blue (which won't be revealed here) comes across as a trifle melodramatic, but the gasps that it evoked from some audience members on the night I saw the show testifies to its shocking, controversial nature. The play does pack a punch, largely due to the phenomenal performance of Merkerson, but it is an incredibly frustrating and incomplete theatrical experience.

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