Judith Sloan’s compelling solo show at La MaMa, Yo Miss!, is grounded in her experience teaching drama to underprivileged New York City high school and college students. There’s a suggestion of pretentious artiness in the show’s subtitle, “Transforming Trauma into Art,” and in the concept – one woman playing a litany of characters while triggering the sounds herself with MIDI controllers, accompanied by two live musicians. But blessedly, except for a brief collage-poem at the start, this deeply felt and richly entertaining show frames its earthy soulfulness in high-concept theater with ease.
In a whizzing-by hour-and-a-half Sloan shows us an assortment of students of many nationalities, many of them immigrants and children of immigrants. Some have fled foreign horrors only to find confusion and disappointment in the poor outer-borough neighborhoods of New York. Boys in an upstate “alternate education center” – “jail but school, school but jail,” or what we used to call reform school – tower over Sloan, ridiculing her intentions – until she wins them over by juggling. One student works through Aristotle, others bring in the overseas rap music they listen to, a class is bowled over when Sloan delivers on a promise to bring in a rap star to speak to them. A Jewish grandmother out of Sloan’s own childhood makes an appearance too, and teaches a lesson to the kids and another to us all.
One tough part to watch, for me, was Sloan’s account of her experience of the September 11 attacks. Such stories can’t help but bring the trauma back. She uses it as a marker to begin a diary-like chronological sequence tracing her activities on the “front lines.” One of the most powerful stories relates her interaction with and personal assist to a 12-year-old Pakistani student struggling against her father’s plan to marry her off back home.
The post-9/11 chronology gives a bit of helpful structure to an otherwise stream-of-consciousness procession of memories and re-enactments from Sloan’s experiences with her many students over the years and her own privileged and suburban, but nonetheless traumatized, childhood. As artfully composed and intelligently framed as it is emotionally gutsy, Yo Miss! has been evolving for a few years now and has achieved a sinewy theatricality well beyond the impression a written description might suggest – that it might be a self-centered monologue, or a batch of show-offy performance tricks. No. It’s a fully realized piece of inventive theater that packs a punch – and a lesson.
Yo Miss! runs through March 13 at The Club at La MaMa. Visit the website for tickets and schedule, or call 646-430-5374.