BORDER/CLASH: A Litany of Desires
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 13, 2005
Staceyann Chin radiates the kind of energy that could hold an audience’s attention even if she were reciting from the Yellow Pages. Because she so relishes the words tripping off her tongue, because she is proud of the journey she has taken to get her to this performance, and because she revels in the fact that fate is “another word for whatever the fuck I choose to do,” we revel along with her. Her one-woman show BORDER/CLASH is the story of her life to date.
Chin was born in Jamaica, to a Jamaican mother and a Chinese father, neither of whom raised her—her father never even came to see her mother after she was born. She spent her childhood with aunts and grandparents, mostly separated from her brother and only occasionally seeing her mother. In college, she not only came out to herself as a lesbian, but defiantly “live[d] out loud as a lesbian” in a culture where being openly gay would get you shunned, if not raped or killed. She came to New York in her twenties, got up the nerve to perform at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and almost before she knew it, was a star of the slam poetry world—touring, speaking at colleges, performing on Broadway in Def Poetry Jam, even at one point being interviewed on CNN.
BORDER/CLASH is an illustration of one of the lessons Chin has learned along the way: “the invisible story is valuable if it can be sold.” This autobiographical narrative, performed with full acknowledgment of the watching audience, shows that she is both cynical enough to know she’s a commodity and confident enough to ask the highest price for herself. It’s a progress narrative, a lightly tongue-in-cheek rags-to-riches story whose protagonist is still moving onwards and upwards.
Chin’s roots as a writer are in slam poetry, and some of the show’s high points come when she pulls out her poems and performs them. But her prose also shows a fine ear for an aphorism and a tart phrase—my favorite, used to describe the first woman she fell in love/lust with, is Savannah’s “angst is in perpetual bloom.” Some parts of the show are more effective than others. Not surprisingly, Chin has more perspective and more insight about the earlier parts of her life than about the most recent events. Perhaps surprisingly, her perceptions are sharper when she’s talking about the bad times than the good ones. She’s rightfully proud of the success of Def Poetry Jam—but the part of the play where she talks about Broadway has substantially less impact than her quiet, blow-by-blow recounting of an attempted gang-rape.
It’s the tiny observations that make it hit so hard. She is able to retrace the path of her thoughts in those minutes with microscopic detail: each touch, each word, each step toward the door as she tried to escape, each color in the shirts the boys wore. Director Rob Urbinati’s staging is at its most effective here as well. Sometimes the traffic patterns feel a little random, but here Urbinati keeps Chin still, and far from the audience, which sharpens our focus.
The physical production is gorgeous, especially Garin Marschall’s set, riotous with color and cleverly delineating the streetscapes of Jamaica and New York with different arrays of fabric.
In concluding, Chin describes the current state of her life, and realizes that “Most days I am exactly who I want to be.” How can you ask for more from a life? Chin’s joy—in her politics, in having a platform from which to speak, in having accomplished this much already—makes BORDER/CLASH well worth watching.