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If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhf*cka

Pretty hurts
Shine the light on whoever's worse
Perfection is the disease of a nation
trynd fix what you can't see
It's the soul that needs surgery.
—Beyoncè, "Pretty Hurts".

. . .how lucky you are to wear your imperfections for others to gaze upon. Yes. It is such a simple life that ugly people are granted.
— Akim, the Beoncé of Tori Sampson's If Pretty Hurts. . .
Mirirai Sithole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Phumzile Sitole, Rotimi Agbabiaka, and Níke Uche Kadri (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Teens dealing with self-image issues are hardly ground breaking rarities on or off Broadway these days. Think Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill, Mean Girls.

Last season Jocelyn Bioh gave the physical beauty issue a delightful woke twist with School Girls; OR, the African Mean Girls. To create yet another teen focused self-image story that's woke without coming off as a copycat School Girls, Tori Simpson has set her If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfuka in a fictional African village. She's also fused pop culture interactions with the magic realism of an Alvin Ailey-like choreographed folk tale to culminate her super beautiful main character's story.

Playwrights Horizon, one of Off-Broadway's most distinguished incubators for new works has given Sampson's play a Class A production. It's helmed by Leah C. Gardiner, a director known to bring sprightliness and energy to a plawright's style, content and characters.

Since the outstanding cast features Níke Uche Kadri and Mirirai Sithole from School Girls. . ., I arrived at the theater with high expectations for another worthy addition to plays in tune with exploring familiar issues from fresh viewpoints. While Kadri and Sithole (Kadri as the central character) contribute to the pleasure of watching a dynamic cast give their all, If Pretty Hurts. . . is not on a par with Bioh's play or other recent entries into teen empowerment issue plays. And, given that the in-your-face second part of Sampson's title has lost its shock value, it now only seems like a bid for cutting edge status.

Though this play lacks the hoped for bite, it's never boring to watch. That's especially true of the folk tale fable with its visual and aural pleasures provided by Dede Ayite's costumes, Raja Feather Kelly's choreograpy and Louisa Thompson's steam spewing downstage River, and Carla R. Stewart's rousing vocalizing as the voice of that tale's river.

If I had only a tweet to tell you what If Pretty Hurts. . . is about, Beoncé's 2014 "Pretty Hurts" about competition among young women and the standards of beauty designed to defeat them would do.

The beautiful singer/songwriter's stand-in here is Akim (Níke Uche Kadri), the tall 17-year-old beauty over-protected by her parents (Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen). The controlling Ma and Dad account for the realistic aspect of the plot development: Akim's attempts to develop a friendship with three village girls — Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), and Adama (Mirirai Sithol). Their jealousy of her "fairest of them all" standing is exacerbated when a romance brews between Akim and Kasim, (Leland Fowler), the local Romeo. It seems that the wealth Massassi considers him to be her boyfriend. Consequently, she persuades the other girls to help her destroy Akim.

And so, we have the parent dominated and isolated by her beauty Akim be come the victim of Mean Girl Massassi and company. Popping up regularly as the narrator is a jaunty chorus figure (Rotimi Agbabiaka, milking this role for maximum fun). This plot development sends the story spinning toward the surreal folk tale. That sequence is followed by a wordless finale that inventively illustrates that we need to keep examining beauty in all its positive and negative meanings.

In addition to the singing by the wonderful Voice of the River, the whole production is enhanced by the sumptuous music provided by sound designer Ian Scot and musicians Rona Sidiqui an Erikka Walsh positioned at opposite sides of the stage.Dede Alit keeps Akim in an almost childish dress to underscore the parents' controlling her as if she were still a little girl. Her outfits for the rest of the cast, especially the narrator, are more flashy.

Except for that rising and descending River bos, Louisa Thompson's set's only prop is an encircling glass curtain topped by bright lights.

Watching the cast constantly racing around behind that curtain, and up the aisle,nd across the walkway in front of the Theater's Row F, and back on stage down the other aisle gets to be a little tiresome — confirming that the show should have lost at least ten or fifteen minutes — along with the second part of that more pretentious than pertinent title.

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If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka by Tori Sampson
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly.
Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka (Chorus), Maechi Aharanwa (Ma), Jason Bowen(Dad), Antoinette Crowe-Legacy(Massassi), Níke Uche Kadri (Akim), Mirirai Sithole (Adama), Phumzile Sitole (Kaya), Carla R. Stewart (Voice of the River).
Scenic Designer: Louisa Thompson
Costume Designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Designer: Matt Frey
Original Music and Sound Designer: Ian Scot
Production Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission.
Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons 416 W 42nd St.
From 2/15/19; opening 3/10/19; closing 4/05/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer March 12, 2019

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