What does it mean to stand out from the crowd, not for accomplishments or personality, but for sheer physical beauty? Philosophers, cultural critics, and scientists often tackle this ever-elusive topic. But in the cultural sphere at least, the answers keep escaping us – or we keep avoiding them. Playwright Tori Sampson takes a hard, wild swing at the issue in If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, her magical-realist fable now in its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, directed with vigor by Leah C. Gardiner.
Sampson distances us from American pop culture by setting the play in a fictitious African village where modern technology mingles with folk beliefs. Gleefully borrowing from the ancient Greeks, she gives us a Chorus (a deliciously flamboyant Rotimi Agbabiaka), cleverly conceived as a personified cell phone, who serves as a kind of master of ceremonies.
But the central characters, 18-year-old village beauty Akim and her three friends, need no third-person introduction. Akim (Níkẹ Uche Kadri), frustrated that her overprotective parents won’t let her socialize with her peers or join in the village celebrations, wears her heart on her sleeve. For their part, Massassi, Adama, and Kaya reveal themselves in monologues.
Though vibrant characters in themselves, Akim’s three friends also represent aspects of her own penned-in personality. Kaya embodies the intellectual side, Adama the inclination to live and let live. And Akim’s envy of her friends’ social lives has a dark parallel in Massassi’s livid jealousy when her boyfriend Kasim (an excellent Leland Fowler) becomes infatuated with the beautiful Akim. “You need us to live – bitterly miserable, constantly loathing, meticulously dissecting – so that you can exist in all your glory,” Massassi tells Akim at a climactic moment.
Though the show never quite zeroes in on a central message, it takes us on a beautiful journey through familiar passions and traumas, lensed into high relief by the artifice of fable. Sneaking Akim out of her parents’ house to attend the village celebration, the girls must appease a riverine spirit (voiced with wordless power by Carla R. Stewart). The choreography and stagecraft of their mystical crossings feel truly magical. We witness death, and feel the sting of tragic loss in the panic of Akim’s father (a magnetic Jason Bowen). But the play also takes us into the afterlife – and back – with captivating music and dance rituals.
A “happy” ending to the fable nevertheless leaves questions. We feel acutely for Akim’s father when she vanishes. Yet we can’t help but join Adama in condemning his conviction that his daughter’s beauty gives her life greater value than other people’s. “Your willingness to toss me aside and annihilate these girls for the uplifting of Akim is the root of all wickedness.”
Resurrection isn’t sitting so well with Adama, and that brings me to one of the play’s flaws. Massassi’s anger and jealousy, captured in Antoinette Crowe-Legacy’s explosive performance, make her blessedly larger than life. And she gets a wonderful solo scene at the end. But Kaya and Adama, after their lively self-expositions, aren’t fully fleshed out. I wanted, in particular, to understand Kaya’s motives for violence and Adama’s for mercy. With all the show’s earthy energy, colorful costumes, soulful choreography, and stirring African-inspired music, we lose some character elements. The show is full of life and rarely drags, but might be more fully satisfying if expanded a bit to deepen more of the characters, and made into a two-act.
The other problem I had was with the accents. With such vivid performances and such a deeply imagined story, it was frustrating that I couldn’t understand some of the lines, particularly at moments of emotional extremes.
Now, about that last scene. On a hitherto set-less stage, Massassi wakes in her furnished room. We’ve gotten the impression that Akim’s family is the wealthy one, but Massassi apparently has enjoyed a pleasant middle-class youth, with all the makeup and personal products and clothing she needs. We’re very far from the vengeful fire-pit scene that preceded. But Sampson leaves us to wonder how much of what we’ve seen till then was “just a dream.” The theme of beauty remains, refocused now into the everyday morning toilet of a young woman, shown in painstaking real time. This powerful scene is a daring gamble that pays off handsomely – or should I say beautifully?
We almost don’t need the self-actualization Massassi addresses to her mirror when she’s finished; the action has spoken for itself. Still, Massassi – and through her, Sampson – deserves the moment. “I am my laughter. I am my courage. I am my intellect. I am my persistence. I am my uniqueness. I am my definition. I AM pretty. I am gorgeous. I am sexy. I am Beautiful.” This is no mere self-help affirmation. It feels like a solid truth. A story putatively centered on the beautiful Akim ends with the body-image-deficient Massassi owning the stage. And if that’s the only message this wild celebration of a show leaves us with, it was well worth it.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka is at Playwrights Horizons through March 31. Visit the website for schedule and tickets.