MotherStruck

by John Stoltenberg

I happen to like solo performance pieces a lot and I’ve seen many. There’s something I love about the immediacy of a single performer claiming my attention—and maybe stirring my emotions or stimulating my intellect or making me laugh—with only that which they can bring to a stage on their own. So I speak from a past-primed perspective when I say:

I have never seen a solo performer who blew me away the way  Staceyann Chin did last night at The Studio Theatre with her autobiographical detonation, MotherStruck.

Chin—an acclaimed author and spoken-word artist—enters the intimate Milton Theatre down an aisle, connecting to the audience with all emotion guns firing from the get-go. She starts to tell her heart-racing story: Born in Jamaica. Realizes she’s attracted to girls. Gets assaulted by homophobic teen boys. Moves at 19 to Lower East Side New York to escape the thuggery. Falls in with poets and dreamers and finds her LGBTQ tribe. After multiple lesbian affairs that don’t last, falls deeply in love with and marries a gay man. (I know, that could never happen.) 🙂  Then she decides to have a baby.

And she is determined. Really determined. With a desire that drives this funny, furious, fast-paced show and Chin’s supercharged performance in it like a combusting propellant.

By some curious but happy coincidence, DC has just seen the openings of three terrific plays featuring female characters who are queer, lesbian, or otherwise patriarchy-nonconforming: Cloud Nine at Studio,  Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops at Woolly Mammoth, and The Gulf at Signature. Now comes MotherStruck with a  gripping and exhilarating story of lesbian single motherhood that’s so far outside trumpian presumptions that it plays like a triumphant alt universe.

And Chin slays it.

Striking in her red buzzcut mohawk, wearing no shoes and no makeup, Chin roams and owns the circular stage with pantherlike power. Her voice and face are a kaleidoscope of multiple characters and her rapid-fire inner life in the spellbinding narrative. Her energy is nonstop. Set Designer Kristen Robinson backs up Chin’s baby-yearning with an upstage curved wall, all gray on gray, upon which we can just make out the image of a sonogrammed fetus.  Its subtle effect on Chin’s story is stunning.

Chin is a constantly moving target, roving all over, at times aiming her performance intensely at individual audience members. Lighting Designer Dante Olivia Smith always finds and shines on her. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives her hip tie-dyed tights and loose oversheaths. Sound Designer Matthew Nielson inserts pop-music clips that get their own laughs, as when Chin exults over a potential donor’s sperm count, which is in the 98th percentile, and the chorus from “We Are the Champions” comes on.

Some serious synergy had to have gone on between Chin and Director Matt Torney. There’s not a cue that doesn’t work, a line that doesn’t land. Associate Artistic Director Torney can also be applauded for discovering MotherStruck in New York and urging that it be done as a Studio X production. (Studio X is not a venue; it’s the name Studio gives a subset of its season for “work that breaks new ground in its style or content.”)

There’s something marvelous about Studio’s programming of Stacey Chin’s  MotherStruck. At heart the work is an outlier narrative framed like a fringe show. It flips the finger not only at mainstream social conventions but also at commercial theater’s constraints on what women playwrights can and can’t say. How often do we get to hear an unabashedly radical feminist holding forth first person on a mainstage in this town?  Not very. Not even during last season’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival was there a voice quite like Staceyann Chin’s. Yet, praises be, her story now comes through—out, loud, and true.

There’s a rad rad world going on at Studio right now. And the woman who’s making it happen is a dyke to watch out for.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Not actually a spoiler though you might think so: Staceyann does give birth to a baby, a daughter whom she names Zuri. The afternoon before going to see MotherStruck, I watched this adorable video of them together. I was glad I did. I bet you will be too.

MotherStruck plays through October 23, 2016, at The Studio Theatre  – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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