By Tulis McCall
The most fascinating element about this play is the title: Motherstruck! THAT is brilliant. Succinct. Multi-faceted. It makes my brain spin off like a fighter ship in the first Star Wars movie. There is the ubiquitous Motherf—ck (to which I am having a violent reaction theses days. And then there are the myriad shutters opening to the ways in which one might be Mother Struck. Brilliant.
In words of one syllable – the show is not as pinpoint as its title. This is not because of the mighty story telling talent of Stacyann Chinn. It is because her story is allowed to wander out of the barn and off into the wilds without adult supervision. Too bad, because this is a story that deserves attention.
Keep your legs closed and your schoolbooks open. God will take care of the rest. Chinn was told by her aunt back in Jamaica. With advice like this it is no wonder that by the age of 12 Staceyann Chinn was making deals with God.
Chinn spent the better part of her youth terrified of becoming pregnant and ending up like her mother. She made certain she got good grades that resulted in scholarships and eventually a place at University. It was there that life changed. Changed as in, things went ass-over-teakettle kind of change. One day she was sitting next to a girl who was chewing on a pencil while she worked. Over the course of a few minutes it dawned on Chinn that she wanted to be that pencil. Up until that moment she had no idea that she was gay. Not really a surprise because being gay was illegal in Jamaica.
Once she was out of the gate, however, Chinn made her sexual identity known. After she was cornered and beaten by 13 boys in the dormitory she left her country and came to New York to find the family that she would create. She married Peter, a gay man with a passion for living life without restrictions, and moved into a house in Far Rockaway with him, his mother and Staceyann’s girlfriend. Life was magic.
Until it wasn’t. She and Peter had always planned to have a child together, and in the meantime Chinn was experiencing artistic successes and adventures of her own making. But when Peter died just shy of his 30th birthday, her biological train went off the track.
Chinn does end up becoming a mother – that is the point of this tale – but it literally takes years for it to happen, and for the donor to be the absolute perfect person. Along the way she also had surgery for an enormous cyst that is interfering with her health. Once pregnant, her path was not smooth. Chinn reports her journey to parenthood like a pioneer traveling through uncharted territory. She is armed with stealth, survival skills and determination. She will not be swayed. Over the months of her pregnancy morning sickness and bleeding are just part of each swell day. She has a bank account on Empty and risks being evicted. While the world is swirling around her, she focuses on the center of her being where her daughter lives. She negotiates with both her child and God until the day that she gives birth – well, actually she goes through umpteen hours of labor before the C-section that saves her daughter Zuri-Siale Samanya Chinn (a name that means vulnerable/ resilient/rock of beauty/reason for Love). This beautiful child arrives in tact. Everything Chinn did, or did not do, adds up to this one moment. And in this one moment Chinn realizes that this child arrived without a manual, and that what was prologue may just be – no pun intended – child’s play compared to what lies ahead.
The second act cuts a broad swath through the years following Zuri’s birth. And while Ms. Chinn is an exacting performer, the material, even more so than the first act, lacks focus and direction. We do not know her destination, not that we have to, but it would be helpful if we thought that Ms. Chinn did. Frankly, I am guessing she does have a specific point of view, but in this production it has not been sussed out. She wants her daughter to be more than she thinks possible – but that is not news. Doesn’t everyone? There is something else underneath this text that we are never allowed to know. I don’t know what it is, but I do know that the passion Ms. Chinn has is real, and I know that passion has roots, and I know that it is those roots that are the connecting tissue of a story.
There is an important story hidden in this monologue. It deserves to be heard. But at the moment the gold nugget at its center does not lead the way. The details are in charge. And when the details are in charge it is like having the nursery school be taken over by the children.
It is not enough to tell a good story, which Ms. Chinn does in no uncertain terms. When the narrative s narrative alone, however, the story loses its drama. And drama is why we go to the theatre. We don’t go to hear a person tell us about her life. We go to hear a person make us feel alive.
MotherStruck! — Written and performed by Staceyann Chin; directed by Cynthia Nixon; lighting by Bradley King and Dante Olivia Smith; sets by Kristen Robinson; costumes by Akua Murray-Adoboe; sound by Elisheba Ittoop; associate director, Ron Russell; assistant director, Shariffa Ali; stage manager, C. Renee Alexander. Presented by Culture Project, Rosie O’Donnell and Robert Dragotta, with Michael Drescher, Curt Forsythe, Susan Mikulay, Julio DePietro, Ken Schur and Sue Wolf. Through Jan. 29 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, near Lafayette Street, East Village; 866-811-4111, cultureproject.org. Running time: 2 hours.