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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
No one defines it. No one says the actual word. But it's obvious what the characters are talking about. They spit accusations, stalking like animals in a cage, and then they pause, holding their tongues just before the damning word. We feel the weight, the cost of what isn't said.
That contradiction---blunt feeling expressed with ambiguous language movement---defines Born Bad a savagely insightful drama by British playwright debbie tucker green. Now playing at Soho Rep, it stages a reckoning in a Jamaican-British family that's been torn apart by incest. The grown-up children confront their parents; the parents confront their children; and everyone confronts themselves.
Thanks to green's writing, their revelations feel both literal and symbolic. In one scene, for instance, the son says "Was it worth it?" over and over and over. At first, it sounds like a natural outburst from a wounded man, but eventually, after so many repetitions, the words sound strange, chantlike, until they suggest an obsessive loop in his mind. It's like experiencing the actual world and the psychological world at the same time.
But how do you stage a play that lives in two worlds at once?
Director Leah C. Gardiner could have created a full-on metaphor, with nothing but stylized gestures and speech, or she could have unleashed a naturalistic assault. Instead, she tries to capture both elements at once.
Take the first scene, when the family's oldest daughter yells at her mother. Her first line is "If you acting like a bitch, I'ma call you it," and after she says "if you acting like a bitch," she pauses. She subtly directs her energy toward the audience, like a comedian who has just delivered a great set-up line and wants the crowd to get on her side. After that moment of connection, she hurls "I'ma call you it" back at her mother. In just one line, she has played to the audience and to another character.
"Arguing is about the audience you have listening," says Gardiner. "I talked to [the actors] about the audience. Not just the audience of the characters, but also the audience out in the theatre. At the end of the day, you're arguing for your memory, and you want to make sure all of your audiences hear you."
Gardiner also packs the show with non-verbal statements. Sometimes the actors simply move, but sometimes their posture or their gait reflects an element of their character.
The middle daughter, for instance, has a spotty memory of her childhood, so she tends to be silent as her family fights. During one key scene, Gardiner initially let her sit in a chair, but then she decided the sister would have more impact if she stood with her back to the family: "She had been disappearing when she was sitting. I realized she can't disappear because her relationship to the family is so powerful. I had to find ways to physicalize her invisibility to the family without letting her be invisible to us."
Gardiner's explanation helps explain why she staged the show this way, instead of, say, letting the actors be "naturalistic" for the entire production. "Something told me that if I had these characters running around and confronting each other and arguing all the time, that would limit what the play could do. What are you going to take away from that besides rage? You should be enraged, of course, but can't we come away with that and then other kinds of ammunition?"
In other words: Stylized gestures can uncover emotional depth. They can show us what's hiding beneath anger. As Gardiner says, "Hopefully, [the gestures] implant things into the memory of the audience so that they go away thinking about the issue of the play."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor