Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick is a deeply personal and passionate piece that comes across like a slam poetry session. (I’ve never been to a slam poetry session, but I’d imagine this to be like one). A young girl, Alexis, reflects on her life growing up in 1970s ghetto Harlem, as she struggles to find herself and embrace her latent talents as a writer. Along the way, she befriends an eager, young boy named Jimmy, and the two form a strong bond that carries them through adulthood. They try to escape their broken and abusive homes through books and their incredibly fertile imaginations. They both see a trip to Paris as a life goal. But then cold, hard reality steps in.
The show was originally intended as a one-woman piece (performed by Orlandersmith when her play premiered in 1998). In this version, we have LaNisa Frederick, who brings brings joy, rage and, at times, theatrical fireworks to the stage as Alexis. It’s a very admirable performance that requires her to switch roles and emotions on a dime, all while navigating Orlandersmith’s tricky verbal landscape. However, it’s difficult to really believe this young, charismatic and fresh-faced actress has experienced this life. As performed by Frederick, Alexis’ story is presented to us, rather than lived onstage. The words Frederick speaks are emotionally driven, but the performance isn’t as engaging as one would like.
The biggest issue here is the addition of two actors (Caren Blackmore and Brandon Thompson) who randomly intersect Alexis’ story. They each play a number of characters including her mother, Jimmy, Jimmy’s father and the caring librarian who befriends Alexis. They are unnecessary, and cut into Frederick’s monologues just as she’s getting warmed up. Keep it a one-woman play, as originally written. Maybe then Frederick could fully shine?
Still, Orlandersmith’s story is universal and worth telling. We can all relate to feeling trapped and isolated, with the need to break free a natural outcome. I just wish the presentation of her story by Pegasus Players resonated a bit deeper.
“The Gimmick” plays through March 28 at Pegasus Players. Go here for more information >