Pike St.

by John Stoltenberg

Even as fear and animus split the human race asunder, great authors have reminded us for millennia that we really are all one. From the ancient Roman playwright Terrence (“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me”) to the American poet Walt Whitman (“I am large, I contain multitudes”) to the pop star Michael Jackson (“We are the world, we are the children”), the human aspiration to unity has been voiced in wonderful words. Admirable adages. Timeless texts. But there’s always a catch. Because only when that aspiration is embodied are we mortals fully persuaded that we are of one another. Seems the body can mean more than words ever can.

All of which is why what Nilaja Sun does in her solo performance Pike St. is such an epiphany of empathy. She brings other people to life on stage; they live and breathe  through her; her physicality is their and our pathway to comprehending.

I am a huge fan of what Anna Deveare Smith does with other lives along similar lines. She interviews people, records their words, edits the transcripts into speeches, then performs them with uncanny precision of inflection and veracity of character. Each individual she portrays becomes a real presence, their vocal and ideational idiosyncrasies intact. When Smith began doing her solo shows (Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), she lifted the power of live performance to reconcile across divisions of difference and distrust. And as a consummate truth-teller/storyteller, she always started with what real people said.

Nilaja Sun is also a consummate truth-teller/storyteller, but she begins with people’s bodies. To watch Sun channel her characters in her own body, switching from one to another (more swiftly than a dancer, more seamless than a cinematic special effect) is to behold what seems a brand-new human faculty—a sense beyond sight, touch, hearing taste, and smell—the capacity to honor selves other than one’s own by allowing them in.

Sun authors her own solo plays, which are scripted fiction but extrapolated from life.  (Pike St., for instance, is set in a specific fifth-floor apartment in a tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side, at the onset of a hurricane.) Here’s how she describes her playwriting process:

The work comes to me physically first, and then the word follows. I go through life watching and paying attention to body language, to accents, to the way people move in space, and that’s where a lot of the writing comes from. I don’t start by thinking in terms of “What do I want to say?” It’s more, “Who do I want to leave the audience with?”

For more than four minutes at the beginning of Pike St., Sun  sits in a kitchen chair, her mouth agape, her hands and arms contorted, nearly immobile except she bounces to background music. We are transfixed, not yet knowing who we are seeing; then with astonishing suddenness Sun leaps to animated life and welcomes us to the world of the play. She does this by, of all things, leading us in a clapping and deep-breathing exercise. So begins the singular experience of Pike St.: watching the extraordinary way Sun moves in space.

I was stunned and spellbound by Sun’s physicality even before the show’s story unfolded. Then as she introduced us to each of her story’s several characters, she seemed to be embodying them exactly as they would themselves.

First there is Evelyn, a gutsy single mom whose daughter Candi (whom we met unawares earlier) was paralyzed four years ago, likely by an aneurysm, and cannot breathe on her own. With the risk of electrical outage from the oncoming storm, Evelyn worries that Candi will be reliant on an untested gas-fueled generator.

Living with them is Evelyn’s father, Papi, a gruff horndog who is having sex with Migdalia in the other room.  Due home from Afghanistan this day is Evelyn’s brother Manny, who has been sending money to help pay for food, but Papi has been spending it on his golddigger girlfriend.

There’s an octogenarian Jewish neighbor, Mrs. Applebaum, who’s a little out of it. When she asks Evelyn if she is Puerto Rican and Evelyn answers yes, Mrs. Applebaum exclaims, “Welcome to America!”—forgetting that she helped deliver Evelyn when she was born.

Other characters come in and out—a buddy of Manny’s, a shopkeeper—and each comes so thoroughly alive in Sun’s body and voice we nearly forget she is but one person not a cast.

There’s only that kitchen chair on stage. Set Designer Meghan Raham makes a plain playing space bracketed by shelves full of candles stage left and right—an ever present reminder the lights may go out. Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau, though, creates vivid scene changes and moods that shift as fast as Sun’s. And Director Ron Russell doubling as Sound Designer creates a sound track so impressive it sometimes seems Sun’s co-star.

The story, which wends its way through much humor and drama, leads to a shocking  ending that drives home the play’s purpose and social conscience. Which is all well and good. But the real message of Pike St. is in the medium of the messenger: the presence of a profoundly gifted performer who is a shaman for humanity’s wholeness.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Pike St. plays through April 23, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.