Off-Broadway Review: “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member

Once upon a time, in a not so very long time ago there was a beautiful young Nigerian woman named Akim (a self-absorbed yet fragile Níkẹ Uche Kadri) whose Ma (a stern but loving Maechi Aharanwa) and Dad (a somewhat subservient Jason Bowen) project their own flawed conception of what real beauty is (a thoroughly Eurocentric standard of beauty) upon Akim and keep her sheltered in their home. Akim meets Kasim (a delightfully charming Leland Fowler) and begs her parents to allow her to socialize outside their home. Akim’s friends at school Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole), and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole) are also beautiful; however, they believe they are not as beautiful as Akim and become jealous of her and plan ways to kill her. All the young women must experience the “refiner’s fire” to fully understand what beauty is.

This is the Nigerian folktale that playwright Tori Sampson bravely and boldly chooses to retell, update, modernize, and make more accessible to a contemporary audience. Ms. Sampson is to be commended for taking on this important project. Several theatrical genres have benefited from the process of retelling and it is essential to include the African folktale in this process.

Thanks to Tori Sampson’s crisp writing style, it is evident from the start that the audience is being engaged in a retelling of an important Nigerian folktale. This retelling begins with a successful “transfer” to contemporary trans-cultural sensitivities. Louisa Thompson’s sparse, expansive, and “transparent” set allows for the magical realism and fantasy sequences inherent in a folktale. Dede Ayite’s costumes successfully bridge space and time. Matt Frey’s lighting and Ian Scot’s original music and sound design provide the realism-magical realism continuum with transcendence and authenticity.

The storyteller/chorus (a transcendent and spritely Rotimi Agbabiaka) is a persuasive “substitute” for the oral tradition that preserved and shared African folktales. Akim’s Ma and Dad are believable in their roles as enablers of the Eurocentric standard of beauty. And although the “Mime section” is starkly accompanied by Carla R. Stewart (The Voice of the River), it seems to interrupt the flow of Tori Sampson’s script and contributes to the overwrought and overlong nature of the piece. Overall, the new play needs tightening and streamlining as it moves forward in development.

Under Leah C. Gardiner’s direction, the energetic and transformative cast mine Tori Sampson’s script for its buried enduring and essential questions; however, despite their efforts, they come up with less than a treasure trove. What could have been a modern-day African folktale about self-awareness, self-acceptance, and true beauty – full of teachable moments – “If Pretty Hurts” becomes a fractured fairly tale searching for thematic integrity. Perhaps, in the playwright’s attempt to modernize the format of the African folktale, she works too hard to make the experience interactive and participatory.

Despite these concerns, “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka” in the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons is a must see. Audiences need to support new voices like Tori Sampson. Her contributions to the theatre will continue to challenge the ways we have understood what theatre is, how it is expressed, and how its messages can be exposed to audiences.

 

IF PRETTY HURTS UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA

The cast features Rotimi Agbabiaka, Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, and Carla R. Stewart.

The creative team includes Louisa Thompson (Scenic Designer), Dede Ayite (Costume Designer), Matt Frey (Lighting Designer), and Ian Scot (Original Music and Sound Designer), Cookie Jordan (Hair and Wig Designer), Alyssa K. Howard (Production Stage Manager), and Noah Silva (Assistant Stage Manager).

“If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka” in the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street) through Sunday March 31, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. For more information on the show including cast, creative team, and ticketing information, visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/. Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Antoinette Crowe Legacy. Credit: Joan Marcus.