Dael Orlandersmith in her solo show Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

The world premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s compelling play, Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men, is now at Berkeley Rep through June 24. Ms. Orlandersmith, sole writer and actor in this powerful production, portrays a handful of abused boys and the haunting effects the abuse has on the men they become.

Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men is carved into searing character studies of abused boys, each of whom suffers a different form of mistreatment. Some of the boys reappear on stage later in their lives as we see them struggle to escape their horrible childhoods. The play has a riveting message that never appears preachy, but it does explore gritty taboo subjects we’d ordinarily avoid. The boys suffer from child rape, alcoholic rages, prostitution, beatings and pedophilia.

In each vignette, Orlandersmith depicts the dialect, body language and affect of the characters, including Puerto Rican, Irish and African American boys. She appears on stage throughout the 90-minute (no intermission) performance. That’s hard work, but Orlandersmith made it seem effortless. Her acting ability is as exceptional as is her writing. In each scene, through her acting and writing talents, she convincingly presents a vivid story of each subject’s life. Yet, the following day, I found that my memory of the characters had run together a bit.

Orlandersmith was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with Yellowman, which played at Berkeley Rep in 2004 to enthusiastic reviews. In 1996, she won an Obie Award for writing and starring in Beauty’s Daughter. Her other plays include Bones and Stoop Stories, The Blue Album, Suicide Girlz and Monster. Orlandersmith was the recipient of a Guggenheim Award and the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award. She has taught playwriting and solo performance at Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Yale University.

Obie Award-winning director Chay Yew has done a excellent job of bringing Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men to life. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling created a sinister atmosphere using one chair on a bare stage with a wooden floor. The harsh white spotlights, by lighting designer, Ben Stanton, very effectively convey the starkness of the boys’ lives. Orlandersmith wears the same appropriately recessive black tank, jacket and pants (by Anita Yavich) throughout her performance.

I confess that I was not looking forward to seeing Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men. I was in the mood for a fast-paced comedy of manners …. diverting and entertaining fluff. Yet I was spellbound by Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men. The characters were presented truthfully and believably —without exploitation or sentimentalism. But no happy endings, either.

Orlandersmith is remarkable. Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men is a thrilling piece of theater. Don’t miss it.

For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...