nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
July 12, 2008
The latest offering from The Culture Project is the kind of play that is so well-intentioned that it's hard to be critical of it without feeling a little guilty. Written and performed with an abundance of heart and conviction, Expatriate traces the relationship of two African American women who start out as unlikely childhood friends and end up as music stars in Paris. Along the way they confront issues of race, sexuality, friendship, and artistic expression. It's a simple yet ambitious story that's imaginatively and stylishly told, and consequently a little frustrating that its admirable elements don't always hang together very well.
Claudie (playwright Lenell Moïse) is an earthy and spiritual singer from New York, who has grown up unable to be open about her homosexuality. She harbors feelings for her best friend, the volatile free spirit Alphine (Karla Mosley), who dates Claudie's brother. Claudie defects to Paris to escape the judgment and restrictions of urban America, finally starting to achieve some inner peace. One year later, for better or for worse, Alphine shows up, bringing with her plenty of drama and her formidable talent as a singer. The two begin singing in the streets as a duo known as Black Venus, which makes them surprise stars in Europe. Needless to say, fame takes its toll on them both.
The play starts appealingly on a small, personal scale, but makes it clear early on that it plans to tackle larger social issues (the play's title certainly implies as much). It occasionally scratches at these subjects, but never quite reaches its potential to say more, eventually falling back on well-worn "band drama" for its central conflict. The actors' performances are extremely engaging, and seemingly fearless...but are also rooted in completely disparate acting styles, with Moïse's grounded naturalism clashing sharply with Mosley's affected, hyper-articulate zeal. The effect is oddly jarring, and it prevents them from maintaining plausible chemistry throughout the piece (although there are many beautiful moments). They are far more connected and convincing when singing, which both do with uncanny virtuosity and commitment.
Where Expatriate really excels is in its more controlled elements. Director Tamilla Woodard's staging is elegant, organic, and unpredictable, incorporating Nicco Annan's choreography in a way that keeps the story fresh and crystal clear. This is facilitated by Deb O's artful found-object set, Nick Moore's evocative and layered sound design, and Stephen Arnold's bold lighting, which all add up to definitively effective visual storytelling. And the songs—in which both singers are accompanied only by loops of their own layered vocals—are gorgeous throughout.
While it may not be a perfect evening of theatre, Expatriate is certainly a force for good on the theatrical landscape. It's not only a feast for the eyes and ears, it's a play that's really about something, and is bound to someday fulfill its socially conscious ambitions...even if, at the moment, it's not quite as deep as it would like to be.