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Article posted: 10/12/2012 6:00 AM

'Black n Blue' paints unsettling portrait of abuse

By Barbara Vitello

Dael Orlandersmith doesn't make things easy for audiences.

Her solo play "Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men" is a gripping, unsettling work that examines in vivid, often wrenching detail the seemingly endless cycle of violence and abuse -- both physical and emotional -- that sweeps up "at-risk" young boys, batters them throughout their teens and spits them out men so damaged they may never recover.

A more chilling scenario has these boys perpetuating the cycle by becoming abusers themselves.

As a former social worker at an emergency shelter for runaway kids, Orlandersmith knows her subject firsthand. That lends an unflinching authenticity to the well-acted, nicely shaped show, a co-commission by Goodman and Berkeley Repertory theaters, directed by Chay Yew. Yew, Victory Gardens Theater's artistic director, helmed a staged reading of an earlier version of "Black n Blue Boys" last year as part of Goodman's New Stages festival. He also directed the world premiere last May in California.

The play unfolds over 90 minutes as a series of vignettes depicting the lives of boys and men ranging in age from 11 to sixtysomething.

For most of the characters, their early lives have been defined by dysfunction, anger, drug abuse, mental illness and poverty. And while some appear to have recovered from those wounds, Orlandersmith makes it clear that the damage they've suffered is far more insidious -- and more abiding -- than they realize.

Mike, a "trick baby" whose mother became pregnant with him while working as a prostitute, finds refuge from his chaotic family life in books. An aspiring writer, he graduates college and becomes a social worker supervising kids like him, more familiar with a punch or kick than a pat on the back. And yet, even this enlightened man has trouble letting go of the past.

Teenage Flaco is a sexual abuse victim whose father refuses to take seriously his son's claims that his mother molested him.

Expatriate Irishman Ian escapes his violent, alcoholic father and moves to America where he works his way up Deloitte Touche's corporate ladder, still smarting from ancient wounds and seething with long-held resentments.

In addition to the main characters, Orlandersmith introduces us to a secondary trio that includes an outsider: Larry, the garrulous, self-styled "king of Central Park" whose observations of strangers serve as a reminder that bullying is also a form of abuse.

Then there's the heart-rending story of Timmy, who, at 11, is better acquainted with addiction and death than any child should be and who wonders where God has gone. Finally, there is the disturbing tale of Tenny, a seemingly innocuous middle-class everyman who turns out to be a pedophile, the banality of evil personified. It's that much more dangerous because you never see him coming; his dispassionate justification for his crime makes for one of the play's most deeply disturbing moments.

Orlandersmith's performance is grounded, purposeful and assured. Still, the strength of the show rests with its expressive yet unsentimental writing.

A lesser writer might have sensationalized the brutal lives of these boys and men. Orlandersmith -- a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2002 play "Yellowman" -- articulates her characters' experiences with clear-eyed compassion that acknowledges the difficulty of escaping one's past. These characters show us how deep their wounds go. They show us the damage that never really gets repaired. And they show us the devastating effects when it resurfaces.

The show could have ended there. But Orlandersmith adds an overly sentimental coda encouraging men to walk on, walk straight, persevere. Intended as a ray of hope in a murky world, it feels tacked on, the one false note in a black and blue ballad that is definitely worth hearing.

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