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A CurtainUp Review
The two-hander tells the story of Claudie (Lenelle Moise) and Alphine (Karla Mosley), two African-American women who flee to Europe and reinvent themselves by forming a singing duo called Black Venus. Success comes—-but with a dash of bitters. And the real name of the game is survival.
While the author gives us no straightforward story, the zestful performances of Moise and Mosley go a long way here. In a series of dream sequences, realistic flashbacks and live concert numbers, we are pulled into the play by their sheer competence, and panache. There are swathes of jazz, hip-hop, poetry, pop rock, and modern dance interwoven into the many scenes, but the show surprisingly feels all of a piece.
No doubt the powerhouse singing makes the difference here. Both performers are attractive and have potent stage presence, especially in the live concert numbers. Moise is bilaterally talented as the playwright, who also undertakes the principal role of Claudie. But it's Mosley, as Alphine, who has the real star turn with the songs . peppered into the play. Her Alphine convincingly portrays a wayward celebrity and fiery chanteuse belting out her emotional truths. As well as delivering the lyrics she gives us the shape of the accompanying silence. Her character is deeply haunted by her lost love, Omar, Claude's twin brother who overdosed on drugs. She becomes the tragic character here, poisoned and paralyzed by her addiction to drugs and the outward tokens of success.
While there's an exuberant feel to the show, the tragic overtone keeps seeping through in the episodes involving young people becoming casualties of celebrity. We find ourselves becoming hushed and sober while we are still in the midst of a surprised laugh. Part of the tragedy is that the characters don't realize that they have painted themselves into a corner until it's much too late. The bugaboos of stardom —-addiction, sex, excessiveness—-loom large in the piece in which becoming a statistic is as quick as a blink.
One can't help making connections between the characters in question and other American expatriates like Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. In fact, Alphine and Claudie in one scene reconstitute an old Baker dance routine which becomes a subtle homage to the legendary performer. Closer to home, Claudie's mother was purported to have occasionally sung along with Nina Simone, and Claudie continues to feel a common bond to that famous singer.
The set design (Deb O) is as theatrically sharp as the play. Though little more than white-toned walls with embedded bric-a-brac of musical instruments and familiar objects, it is as hip as any exhibit in the Museum of Modern Ar and the protean design serves as an ideal backdrop for the entire drama, whether the scene is in Boston, New York City, or France.
There are a few fumbling efforts in Act 2, especially in the final interview with Alphine by talk show host, Paul Patterson (played by Moise). Perhaps if a few cliches were cut this would be less predictable and more satisfying. Everything else moves briskly and is cliche free. On the other hand, the second act's opening scene is pictorially right and utterly life-affirming. Claudie is in Paris, facing the audience, and reading a letter to Alphine: ("My Dearest Alphine, Paris is everything they say and nothing I could ever describe. French sounds fancy. Bitter but delicious. You used those words once, remember?") Moise's Claudie truly suggests a new woman, emerging from the ashes of the previous one. In adversity, her character sparkles. And the following scenes are as rich and delectable as a buttered croissant with a café du lait.
As directed by Tamilla Woodard the drama batters down all the delusions and self-deceptions that stars are sometimes seduced into believing, and exposes the Achilles heel of celebrity. On the surface Expatriate might seem to be about the old wheeze: achieving success at a high price. However, it casts a longer shadow. asking what kind of personality copes with success and manages to move beyond celebrity to achieve the genuine status of artist. Moise doesn't comfort us with platitudes but the painful questions raised make the Expatriates an authentic theater piece.
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