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Liberty City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

April Yvette Thompson
Photo by Joan Marcus .

Liberty City is not a real city by any standard definition. But you'd be hard-pressed to discern that from the same-titled play at New York Theatre Workshop. April Yvette Thompson and Jessica Blank's tale of Thompson's childhood in the infamous Miami neighborhood is crammed with enough inhabitants and action to bust the seams of most self-respecting metropolises.

Sure, there's also enough comedy to split your sides and enough commentary to engage your mind from the beginning to nearly the end. But both the predominately black Miami neighborhood and this play based on it (which Blank directed) are best when the focus is left on the people inside. Not least because they all orbit, and are all played by, the acutely talented Thompson.

Her father Saul is a "slickster, streetwise intellectual," the kind who warns his daughter about the dangers of slavery before sending her to an all-white private school to "learn the tools of the enemy." That he's half-white himself is irrelevant; he's derived his entire self-image from the revolutionary causes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is determined to be a part of a changing future at any cost to him and his family. His wife, Lily, is an unnaturally patient churchgoer whose penchant for allegiance and subservience vanishes quickly when Saul's activism turns to violence.

But craning her neck and scratching an imaginary beard, or pausing at a table and staring off into a sunrise of serenity, Thompson effortlessly glides between the two. The strength of both personalities, the reckless doer and the thoughtful watcher, tells you as much about Thompson as about them, and fills out vital sections of the narrator's own evolving passive-aggressive bent as a young girl.

Thompson was also richly influenced by the woman who raised Saul, known here as Auntie Carolyn, who possesses the wider, more rational perspective on freedom that her son lacks. She sees as he doesn't the implications of his chaining Thompson in slave shackles as a girl, and understands the high prices African-Americans still have to pay in the modern world. (Carolyn's daughter, Valerie, becomes for Thompson both a superbly cool role model —she hangs out with Earth, Wind, and Fire —and as a crack addict a shattered example of what not to do.)

Other characters, like the magic-wielding hairdresser La'marr ("when a black girl's hair moves in the wind like a white girl's, there is a certain amount of fame that comes with that"), fill out the landscape of a place on the verge of disintegration. And when the city tumbles over the edge in the wake of the 1980 riots following Arthur McDuffie trial (in which an all-white jury acquitted several white police officers of responsibility in the brutal death of a black man), Liberty City itself becomes just as fragmented and fractious.

The resulting section of the show, in which Thompson and her little brother Toure try to get back to the safety of their home in the war zone, is the rawest in the show. It drives home the nature of unrest and the lessons children must be carefully taught with a more incisive edge than any other scene in the play, and is depicted by Antje Ellermann's wasteland set and David Lander's streetlamp lighting as an all-out environmental nightmare.

The riots also contain the evening's longest stretches of dead time, representing the least-successful mating of the narrative's immediacy with Thompson's performance. When a local K-Mart, which employed many of her family's neighbors and friends, is the first building to burn to the ground, it feels more like the cyclical duty of a symbol than a defining moment of a contemporary urban tragedy. When Thompson recounts how a young black girl lost a leg in a horrific traffic accident, your skin crawls. But her halting, meticulously enunciated delivery only overmakes her point.

Her portrayals of family and friends, however, glow with gritty warmth and sensitivity, emphasizing their humanity with no sugar coating in sight. Thompson's overzealous, Malcolm X-wannabe father and her even-tempered mother are beautiful creations that bring home all the battles on the frontlines, while Carolyn and Valerie patrol the periphery with their own, equally vivid concerns. (Carolyn's description of how she weaned her daughter off crack by force is the show's most powerful moment.) Blank's staging marshals everyone together with tact and taste.

Both qualities also apply to the show as a whole, which reexamines well-worn civil rights tales through an even more recent lens, showing us a glimpse of a struggle for freedom that's both familiar and new. If you're never quite as affected as you might feel you should be, it's only a reminder that bringing Liberty City to New York can't compare with bringing New York to Liberty City.

Liberty City
Through March 16
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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