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A CurtainUp Review
Inked Baby

This play grew out of a single intention: write with unbridled control.—Christina Anderson.
Inked Baby
LaChanze and Damon Gumpton
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As Christina Anderson admits in the program note about her intention to write Inked Baby with "unbridled control," this does sound like an oxymoron. However, she has indeed managed to explore several major issues via a dramatic story with real flesh and blood characters, all of whom are buoyed by splendid performances. It's also an attention-holding story that's well-paced and staged by Kate Whoriskey who also directed this season's thrice renewed hit, Ruined.

That said, this Off-Broadway debuting play does end up being undermined by excessive ambition. Ms. Anderson is a gifted and often poetic writer but she's heaped too much on her plate for everything to meld into a realistic yet other worldly and easily digested 90-minute play.

The playwright has re-defined her interest in "the body" to the "black body." And, she's further expanded this to address her concerns about the effect on the body from disregard of the environment. To again make her concerns more specific, she has put the adverse effect of a polluted environment on the body within the context of "environmental racism," a term seeded by studies pointing to corporate pollution being most common in areas with high minority populations. All these issues come into play in the story of Gloria and Greer (compellingly portrayed by La Chanze and Damon Gupton), an African-American couple with a strong sense of family and place (their home is a legacy from her hardworking parents). Their marriage, though solid, is marred by the fact that Gloria can't seem to carry a baby to full term. Since they don't have the money for artificial insemination and prefer a more natural approach, they enlist Gloria's much young sister Lena (a radiant Angela Lewis), to use her time after being laid off from a financial job to return to the homestead and become the carrier for their baby.

While there's a lot to be said for Gloria and Greer's choice, especially given the sturdiness of the marital relationship and the familial ties, this is a powder keg situation. Unless the people involved are able to talk about their feelings about the process or to seek help from a sympathetic professiona, they're bound to encounter emotional bumps from the moment the sister and brother-in-law conceive the child to its birth. Unfortunately, Gloria and Greer fall into the trap of locked-up feelings and as we watch time pass (Lena's expanding belly serving as the play's time setter), the anticipated happy event creates all manner of tensions such as Gloria's unexpressed feelings about her sister being the one carrying her baby, a baby shower that kicks up a disconnect between husband and wife. But wait, there's the environmental pollution problem that's hinted at by references to not drinking anything but bottled water that explodes and overshadows everything else — affecting not just Gloria and Greer but Ky (the feisty, colorful Nikkole Salter who's best known as the cowriter and performer of In the Continuum), the old schoolfriend Lena has sought out to offset her sense of isolation and boredom during the pregnancy.

Here's where that heaped high plate starts to overflow and the playwright's efforts to give free reign to an increasingly complex situation and yet keep each character's actions and reactions believable stumbles into shaky territory. The environmental problem that has gone beyond making the water in Gloria and Greer's neighborhood undrinkable turns the familial tensions into a surreal nightmare in which Greer and Ky, both employeees in local businesses, are tested for a strange virus, with procedures that smack of George Orwell's 1984. And if this weren't enough, there's a subtext about Gloria's relationship with Odlum (Che Avende), the owner of a tattoo shop. It's from a tattoo of a butterfly perched on a history book that Gloria has Odlum ink on her wrist that the play gets its its title —— a sort of reverse surrogate act of marking the baby with good luck, that ends up having yet another, darker meaning.

The scene when Gloria and Greer's baby is conceived is choreographed with a wonderful stylized delicacy. On the other hand, the environmental problems are too stylistically over the top. Even without the extremes used to deal with the pollution caused illness, unwinding so many plot threads in just ninety minutes ultimately gives Inked Baby a feeling of being overstuffed yet too short on details to be thoroughly nourishing.

Inked Baby
World premiere byChristina Anderson,
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: LaChanze (Gloria), Che Ayende (Odlum), Michael Genet (Dr. Marion), Damon Gupton (Greer), Angela Lewis (Lena), Nana Mensah (Medical Assistant)and Nikkole Salter (Ky)
Scenic design by Andromarche Chalfant
Costume design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting design by Jason Lyons
Sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Stage Manager: Kasey Ostopchuck
Running Time, 90 minutes without an intermission.
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater 416 West 42nd Street
From 3/05/09; opening 3/23/09; closing 4/02/09
Tues to Fri at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2 and 7pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 3/21/09
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