- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

The title of "The Gimmick," a provocative one-woman play, refers to the drugs, sex and emotional hustles that can destroy lives.

Alexis, the play's cherubic, clever protagonist, finds through the arc of the play that hope might be the most maddening gimmick of all.

"The Gimmick" is part of Arena Stage's "Two Women, Two Shows," a new double production being mounted through Feb. 23 at Living Stage, 14th and T streets NW.

Set in East Harlem, the play follows Alexis (Kashi-Tara), a budding writer, and her lifelong bond with Jimmy, the neighborhood artist.

Alexis' mother spends her time awash in alcohol and cigarette smoke. Jimmy's father is similarly besotted with booze. Their children meet, become fast friends and find solace in art. Alexis discovers novelist James Baldwin and dreams of meeting him in Paris. Jimmy's devotion to Vincent van Gogh's vibrant colors seeps into his palette.

Racism both real and imagined blunts Alexis' progress, as does Jimmy's sudden success and swift downfall. The gimmicks that cast their parents' lives in turmoil threaten them at every step.

Kashi-Tara, clad in a white T-shirt and black cargo pants, supplies an arresting combination of charisma and warmth. Her Alexis, through whose eyes we see the decadent, decaying East Harlem of the late 1960s, is a tortured soul desperate for a better life.

Director Ralph Remington keeps Kashi-Tara fluidly moving across the mostly bare stage, using the actress' lithe form to full effect.

Audiences may go into "The Gimmick" fearing a melodramatic tour de force, given the subject matter. That partially proves true in the play's waning moments, as Mr. Remington indulges Kashi-Tara's kinetic power to stun an audience with a gaze or a shrug.

Playwright Dael Orlandersmith's piece works best during less theatrical moments. It captures the rhythms, feel and intensity of a ghetto childhood without simplifying the struggles. Her judicious use of repetition gives Kashi-Tara's monologue a musical quality, like a lullaby to keep life's pain at bay.

Kashi-Tara's performance never is less than electric. Watching her smell a library book, intoxicated by its musty memories, is to fully appreciate her craft.

She is at her most compelling, though, as the young Jimmy, a character as three-dimensional as if another actor had assumed the part.

Having the actress share her outer, then inner thoughts during a few scenes appears a theatrical gimmick all its own. The scattered moments help put Alexis' roiling emotions in context, and only appear sprodically.

Occasional tribal drum beats, created off-stage, reinforce the drama without diluting its intensity.

Part of the play's power comes from its willingness to show Alexis' many flaws. She's moody, quick to anger and even quicker to assume the worst of her dearest friend. But Miss Orlandersmith builds Alexis' psychological structure so securely it makes every utterance make sense.

A cordial librarian, who takes an interest in Alexis' education, begins as the comforting adult figure the child desperately needs. But by play's end, the librarian has become such a perfect archetype her impact becomes muted.

Still, little can dilute the sheer force of Kashi-Tara's performance in "The Gimmick," or the messages it so compellingly reveals about dreams, ambition and cold realities.


***

WHAT: "The Gimmick"

WHERE: Living Stage, 14th and T streets NW

WHEN: Through Feb. 23. Call for show times.

TICKETS: $15, or $25 for both "The Gimmick" and "Talking With "

PHONE: 202/488-3300 or www.arenastage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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