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Open: 06/10/10- Close: 06/26/10 Black Girl Ugly
Reviewed for By: Aurin Squire

Black Girl Ugly is a stunning and provocative evening of jokes, stories, songs, monologues, and lamentations on the definitions of beauty for all people. For Black audience members, it may be a painful reminder of many things swept under the rug on BET and mainstream culture. For audience members who don't idenitify as African American, Black Girl Ugly makes for a thought-provoking and -maybe even- shocking rendering on life in America.

The structure of Black Girl Ugly is a throwback to the days of 1960s ensemble work and pioneers like Ntozake Shange and Shay Youngblood. The actresses serve as equal collaborators in the creation and growth process, journaling thoughts, acting out childhood tales with music, and engaging in some revisionistic personal and political history. The revisions focus on Black women reclaiming their bodies, their self-esteem, and dignity. The piece begins with each of the humorously described "Blactresses" striking a pose against the Black, Red, and Green curtained backgrounds. Statistics about Black America's high rates of violence and abuse are read by a disembodied voice before each actress plays on a different archetype.

Latonia Phipps portrays the light-skinned militant, compensating for her lack of color by being even more radical in her views on Black power. Courtney Dowe steps out as a female divinity, lost and mistaken in America. Chiquita Brooks plays the dark-skinned goddess. These three different archetypes draw not only the complex and true stories of current Americans, but also Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and even Nina Simone's devastating classic song "Four Women" (if you don't know it, please youtube it). More than just being referential of past stories and artists, Black Girls Ugly transforms them into a new space and new place with vitality and care. From this opening, the actresses move out into their childhood selves, their mothers, their friends and an entire world of characters.

As important as any of the aesthetic elements in a piece like this is humor! This could have been a depressing polemic screed, reactive and reductive against institutionalized sexism and racism. There were moments when Black Girl could have become an easy performance piece, re-affirming the inherent beauty in Black women by resorting to bumpersticker-isms and 'Come to Jesus' softheaded resolutions. But thanks to the intelligence, vision and humor of the performers, the play rolls along with jokes that counterpunch against the bleakness, and stories that shed new light on old problems.

Latonia Phipps shines in a multitude of roles, showing off her sharp comedic-timing, and fluid body that bends and shapes itself into a young girl or a goddess. Courtney Dowe is wonderful as the awkward child whose quirkiness will be labeled as a sign of insanity when she grows up. Dowe also plays the guitar and sings a song she wrote about what it means to be insane for a Black woman. Chiquita Brooks excels as the sassy teenager and young girl trying to be acknowledged for her brains as well as her figure.

Black Girl Ugly makes us aware of how expansive, imaginative and jarring theatre can be with the right artists. WOW Cafe has the perfect mix of performers for this piece. Director Ashley Brockington, who is a performing artist and dancer herself, choreograhs the loose collection of parts to flow beautifully between humor and horror.

There are stories that are good and then there are stories that alter the way an audience sees the world. Black Girls Ugly falls into the latter. It should be required viewing for all teeangers, Black and white. And for adults who think we've passed the point of caring about how Black beauty is perceived, they should come sit in the audience and she how everyone squirms. Even though we might not want to talk about it, these stories are more relevant today than ever before.

WOW Cafe Theatre : 59-61 East 4th