Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Miss Kim
A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People
The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival

part of
The New York International Fringe Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Miss Kim

Say what you will about Gina Kim, but she's learned how to elicit hope from pain. As she and her collaborator Ryan Tofil explain in their play Miss Kim, which is playing through August 27 at the New York International Fringe Festival, Kim started the organization Awareness of Rape and Incest Through Art to help women come to terms with and move beyond their debilitating histories of sexual abuse. That she has experienced similar traumatic events in her own life only help you appreciate all the more everything she's overcome in the service of others.

But worthwhile lives do not necessarily make worthwhile plays, and finding the good in Kim's story as presented here may take too long for even a bottle of Prozac to withstand. In the span of 90 minutes, the play relates how Kim was molested by her uncle as a girl, raped twice, emotionally abandoned by her mother, catapulted into an existence that believed men existed only for sex, consigned to a world of uncaring and unhelpful therapists, cheated on the one man she ever truly loved, and made multiple suicide attempts. Yes, she's finally emerged from much of that darkness, but seeing it onstage in this manner doesn't make it more real—in fact, related in such a compressed, whirlwind format, it actually feels less tangible, more sensational, and almost too much to watch.

This unceasing progression of agony also obscures what could otherwise be an intriguing character study. The Korean-American Kim is portrayed by two actresses: Kim herself and Cristy Candler as her "American" side, setting up a fascinating interplay between conflicting notions of propriety, beauty, and self-worth that form the foundation for Kim's troubles and eventual transcendence. And indeed, white actors (Tofil, Matthew McCurdy, Justin Gentry, and Tessa Faye) convincingly play all the other characters, Korean or otherwise, further blurring the lines between what is American and what isn't, another central theme and the source of Kim's chief disagreements with her traditional Korean mother.

Director Matthew Corozine's nimble, playful staging creates the proper atmosphere of impromptu, improvisational fun in which all this can unfold, and when it's allowed to be Miss Kim is a firmly amusing and insightful look at all the ways we can go wrong before we can go right. But flooding the story with so many specific, graphic examples of those missteps makes Kim's story seem more desperate than essential. It also stifles much of the unique character of a cheeky-but-respectful play that Corozine, Tofil, and Kim have otherwise proven deserves to be seen, heard, and listened to.

VENUE #10: Players Theatre
Tue 17 @ 8:45 Sun 22 @ 4 Tue 24 @ 2 Fri 27 @ 4:45

A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People

Kevin R. Free's A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People is already in the running for Best Fringe Festival Play Title. And when it lives up to those words, it's a riot. Free's examination of how black playwrights must modify their spirits to be palatable to white theatregoers is often bracing, loaded with delicious parodies of works as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun (shock of shocks), George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, and even Kia Corthron's Breath, Boom, and Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size, and August Wilson's entire output. (White playwrights, like Charles Busch and Tony Kushner, get ribbed as well.) And through his roster of deliberately stock characters (Blackboy, Blackgirl, Whiteboy, and Whitegirl), he has lots of room to make lots of points about exactly what he can and can't say—and how angry he can get—to mainstream audiences.

The conceit, however, wears thin quickly, and the lack of strong narrative threads linking the plays eventually hurts rather than helps it over the course of an hour and a half (which feels like about 20 minutes too much). The unifying element is supposed to be Free himself (played by Christopher Burris, who also directed): He's giving up his career of writing black plays for white people, he says, and intends to move on to do the work he really cares about. But Free hasn't written his avatar as an especially commanding figure, so when his creations begin to take over the stage (and thus his mind) the impact on him is not exactly a profound one to us. A late show subplot, involving the white folks' obsession with their heritage's identifying musical instrument, a kazoo, isn't sharp enough in its satire to justify the large amount of stage time it receives.

The acting, though, is right on: wickedly over the top and yet believable in the ways it glances on the harsh realities of black-white relationships. Of particular note: Jennifer Nikki Kidwell is delightful as she tries to tamp down Blackgirl's innate irrepressibility, and Burris stuns with the force of a last-minute development that suggests Blackboy needs to come to terms with who he is and the limitations society imposes on him. If Free's goal with A Raisin in the Salad is to prove to us that we really do want to see more of the likes of Blackboy and Blackgirl onstage, he's succeeded. But the play overall would be stronger if he didn't take so long to get there that that message becomes diluted along the way.

VENUE #10: Players Theatre
Sat 14 @ NOON Mon 16 @ 7:45 Fri 20 @ 9:15 Mon 23 @ 5

The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival

"In 2006," reads the program cover for The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival, "New Orleans' mayor planned to celebrate Hurricane Katrina's first anniversary with a comedy hour which was canceled due to public outrage. Could he have meant ‘comedy' in the classic sense?" Memo to playwright Rob Florence: If a title needs that much explanation upfront, you should probably choose another.

That is, however, about the only thing the show gets wrong. Following five diverse New Orleans residents through the hurricane and its aftermath, based on their actual stories and words, Florence paints a gripping picture of heartbreak, hope, and eventually triumph—on both the Federal and the personal levels. Florence explores rooftop refuges, stadium triage centers, and law-enforcement interrogation rooms, all of which played a vital role in helping Rodney (Gary Cowling), Raymond (Evander Duck), Sheldon (Philip Hoffman), Antoinette (Lizan Mitchell), and Judy (Maureen Silliman) surmount one of America's greatest natural disasters.

Yet there's no self-pity or tragedy to be found in the story—these are all strong-willed people determined that they and the ones they love will survive. I was especially taken with Antoinette's tale—she's an aging black woman charged with preserving a cherished statue and her "special" granddaughter, who eventually proves more capable than anyone suspected—but they're all fascinating, and sumptuously if subtly acted, takes on a situation one doesn't usually think will inspire works from even the cleverest of artists.

This is actually Florence's second documentary-style play on the subject—the first, Fleeing Katrina, was seen four years ago at the Midtown International Theatre Festival was angrier, colder, and much less effective at telling the human stories at the heart of the event. Here, however, Florence has no such problem. Even if that title remains a stretch, The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival delivers the laughs, heart, and insight it promises.

VENUE #16: The SoHo Playhouse
Sun 15 @ 5 Wed 18 @ 9:45 Wed 25 @ 3 Sun 29 @ 4:15

Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets

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