Born Bad Turns Out Good 

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Born Bad
Written by debbie tucker green
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner

The intrigue in debbie tucker green's sharp, short domestic quarrel Born Bad has little to do with the family secret being painfully outed. As the title signals, it's clear from the outset that something bad went down—the cheeky opening line, "Say it... say it...", presupposes that "it" is already known—and it doesn't take long for the nature of the transgression to become clear. What's perversely enjoyable about the one-hour battle royale set during a black family's day-long reunion of sorts (it could also be an intervention or a kind of purgatory) are the quasi-musical dialogue, incessantly shifting allegiances and, in this American premiere at Soho Rep (through May 7), the focused performances of a phenomenally stacked cast.

Dawta (Heather Alicia Simms) is the engine driving her reluctant relatives to the brink. Staged on Mimi Lien's minimalist set—something between a hotel conference hall and an uncomfortably formal living room—their exchanges last anywhere from five, wordless seconds to ten breathless minutes. Shuffled seating arrangements and varied lighting effects underline changes to the volatile power balance as alliances are formed, exploded and renegotiated. The long-burried secret that the eldest daughter struggles to unearth despite non-committal peace-keeping by Sister #1 (superb Quincy Tyler Bernstine), virulent opposition from Sister #2 (explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), and shamed protestations from Brother (scene-stealer LeRoy James McClain), concerns Mum and Dad's (intense Elain Graham and Michael Rogers) complicity in childhood atrocities suffered by their now-adult kids. Dawta is a reckless force furiously piecing together various fragments of the past, and Simms gives a big, swooping, roller-coaster of a performance.

She, McClain and Graham go through a series of swift transformations while the other three remain fairly constant, and the back-and-forth between the two groups is like a tug of war or tag team wrestling match—some kind of physically brutal athletic activity. Because the bad deed is a known quantity so early on, the scenes follow at such a rhythmic pace, and the actors get to demonstrate a huge range of tonalities, postures and styles, Born Bad at times feels like an elaborate acting exercise. And this excellent class aces the test, rhyming, rapping and slipping into Jamaican accents at their most heated without missing a beat. These moments underline the clan's contrasting class positions—Sister #1 and Brother are clearly more well off than Dawta and Sister #2.

The narrative is predictable, even a touch melodramatic in the end, but this ensemble never slows, which has the strange effect of softening the potentially devastating play's emotional impact. There was lots of laughter and many "ohs" and "ouches" on the night I attended in response to the cutting insults and accusations hurled between the family members, but very few tears shed in the aftermath of the final, painful reveal. This might be more problematic if the production weren't so strong and dynamic, and if green weren't, by all indications from her first U.S. show, a born playwright.

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

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