Wednesday, March 13, 2019

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

First, behold the title: If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, sparkling with energy. Next, the structure: playwright Tori Sampson's dynamic, emotional play riffs on folklore, African music and dance, pop culture, teen competitiveness, overparenting, and African and Western ideas of beauty and its value, with a nod to Beyoncé (but, of course). While parts of it are familiar to anyone who has ever worried about her looks, the play is also something new, in turns thrilling, touching, and funny. This show is Sampson's New York professional debut, but we will hear from her again. (And again, and again, I hope.)

Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Leland Fowler
Photo: Joan Marcus
The story is simple. Seventeen-year-old Akim is held by popular opinion to be the prettiest girl in Affreakah-Amirrorikah. Her father is insanely protective of her. She has few friends. When she manages to gain a sliver of freedom she discovers that sexy, confident Kasim has a crush on her--and she is ready and eager to crush right back. Just one problem: Kasim is held by popular opinion (not including his) to "belong" to Massassi. Massassi and her friends Adama and Kaya "befriend" Akim in an attempt to get Kasim back for Massassi. 

The presentation is not simple: It is narrated by Akim's cell phone (humanized as a charming, silly young man wearing bejeweled specs). Magic plays a big role. And a truly wonderful, exciting dance (choreography by Raja Feather Kelly) makes the afterlife seem extremely attractive and a great deal of fun. [spoiler] Everyone in the afterlife wears the same plain mask, freeing them all from the tyranny of looks and looksism. [end of spoiler]

Maechi Aharanwa, Phumzile Sitole (behind Maechi),
Jason Bowen, Níkẹ Uche Kadri,
Rotimi Agbabiaka, Leland Fowler
Photo: Joan Marcus

For all of Sampson's playfulness and creativity, her sense of the cost of beauty and the lack thereof is deadly serious. Akim's father is a possessive idiot, but he is also correct about the dangers threatening his daughter (although his possessiveness actually makes her more vulnerable rather than less). Each of the teenaged girls knows exactly her worth on the awful, artificial, yet painfully real scale of perceived attractiveness. And the sheer exhaustion of being a young female is vividly etched throughout.

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka brought to mind the often mis-quoted line "money is the root of all evil." The actual quote, as found in the King James Bible, is "the love of money is the root of all evil." Similarly, neither "pretty" nor "ugly" needs to hurt. It is the exaltation of beauty--good-looking people making more money, being more popular, being perceived as better people--that causes the pain, particularly to the nonbeautiful. 


In all the discussions of parity in theatre, with percentages of women and people of color getting work, etc., the emphasis tends to be on giving talented people a fair chance. What is also important is giving audiences new voices, different points of view, new forms of art. As an old-ish white woman who has seen thousands of shows, I am thrilled to be challenged and entertained and broadened by writers such as Sampson and directors such as Leah C. Gardiner and performers such as Rotimi Agbabiaka, Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, and Carla R. Stewart, all of whom contribute mightily to the many strengths of If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. We all benefit when more and different people are heard.

Wendy Caster
(8th row orchestra; press ticket)
Show-Score: 90

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