Staceyann Chin worked on New Year’s Eve, performing “Motherstruck,” her intense, sad and very funny solo show directed by Cynthia Nixon about trying to give birth and then trying to be a mother. Many theater artists work when other people are off, but this was apparently not the original plan for this show, which was supposed to start its two-month run in September. But days before what was supposed to be its first public performance, the Culture Project canceled the show, saying they didn’t have the money to put it on. “This would not be the first time we’ve encountered difficulties,” said the Culture Project’s founder and artistic director.
The announcement baffled many people, and irked others, but as it turns out the show began performances just six weeks after it was supposed to.
How remarkably apt this backstage drama is for a show about a lesbian immigrant poet with a radiant smile and a bright red Mohawk hairdo, who herself faced a range of difficulties that caused delay but not defeat.
Abandoned by her parents, Staceyann Chin grew up with a strict aunt in Jamaica who was sure she would make the same mistake her mother made, and become a single mother. But Chin discovered in college she was attracted to women, and in one way, this came as a relief: “Being a lesbian means I can have sex before marriage and never get pregnant,” she tells us. “I will never have to tell Auntie I got knocked-up by some sweet-talking boy.”
Her classmates were not so happy for her, and a vindictive sexual assault by a gang of them drives her into exile in New York. Here she stumbles onto The Nuyoricans Poets Café and a career (In 2002, she is one of the cast members of the Broadway production of Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam.) She also creates something of a family, meeting a gay man named Peter:
“Peter, the handsome/flamboyant/fashion-forward/poet whose generosity borders on the insane. Peter, who I watch remove his coat (in the middle of winter) and hand it to a homeless man on West 4th and Washington. Peter, who specializes in taking in strays, including, and most especially, me.”
They marry, “embrace the narrative of the modern family,” and begin “plotting the logistics of making babies together.”
But “30 minutes before his 30th birthday,” Peter dies of cancer.
The rest of Act I is taken up with Chin’s efforts to get pregnant. Peter’s death is the first of many horrifying complications.
She sums up her romantic relationships with:
“Meet. Love. Break. Recover. Meet. Love. Break. Recover.” – acting out each word as if playing charades (At “Break,” she slumps.)
She can’t find a donor: “I have zero luck procuring a capful of this fluid that men leave in socks….”
She has a couple of medical conditions that prevent her getting pregnant, and her insurance company won’t pay for the surgery that would correct them. She pays for the surgeries herself, and finds the right donor (a story that I won’t tell here but that made me cry.) But then her pregnancy is a horror show of emergencies and complications.
Since the audience sees her with her child in a video playing in the lobby before the performance, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Act I ends in triumph – and terror: “My Brooklyn reality is too small for two people. Dear God, what do I do now?”
Act II focuses on what she did then, her life as a mother, with digressive riffs on her own childhood, and the gentrification of Brooklyn: She is upset that her landlord raises her rent; on the other hand, “when white people come they bring sushi. And the cops come more quickly when white people live next door. And being a dyke is easier when the cops come quicker.”
Staceyann Chin tells all of this with such energy that the stage cannot contain her; she rushes up the aisle, speaks to individual audience members – she was looking straight at me when she spoke of her assault.
At times she is hysterically bawdy, at times adorably self-mocking; at times her candor makes her come off as simultaneously vulnerable and somehow invincible. She seems the kind of person you want to befriend – indeed for the two hours (including intermission) of the show you do befriend her. Everything about this show screams “only in the theater.” Yes, they could tape it as an HBO special, but viewers would miss out by not having her in the same room. At the end of the performance that I saw, she introduced us to her grown niece in the audience, telling her how she’d come through despite their “fucked-up family.” It was obviously not a regular part of “MotherStruck,” but it struck some of the same notes.
Hearing in “MotherStruck” of Staceyann Chin’s struggles to give birth at a time of year when thoughts turn to rebirth, it is easy to see the struggles in her life and the story of the birth and growth of her daughter and the struggles in her art and the story of the birth and growth of all theater art as one single unified story, glorious and inspiring.
Culture Project at Lynn Redgrave Theater
Written and performed by Staceyann Chin¬¬
Directed by Cynthia Nixon; lighting by Bradley King and Dante Olivia Smith; sets by Kristen Robinson; costumes by Akua Murray-Adoboe; sound by Elisheba Ittoop.
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission.
Tickets: $24 to $84
MotherStruck! Is scheduled to run through January 29, 2016