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Speaking a language of aspiration, no `Gimmick'

September 22, 2006|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Words were Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith's ticket out of ghetto hopelessness, and she wields them with devastating eloquence in "The Gimmick." Performed by the author in a limited engagement at the Fountain Theatre, this riveting and inspiring solo piece is guaranteed to touch the soul of anyone who's ever aspired to a better life.

Orlandersmith's Harlem roots furnished her with little joy but plenty of raw dramatic material, which she's sculpted into the compelling first-person narrative of her alter ego, Alexis, a shy, overweight girl coming of age in the 1970s. Isolated and mocked by other children, Alexis is captivated at an early age by the power of language to both wound and heal. Though her abusive, alcoholic mother's relentless criticism has left invisible welts and scars on her psyche, Alexis discovers in reading a doorway to worlds beyond her squalid surroundings.

Orlandersmith sketches the dead-end lives around Alexis in elegant, poetic strokes ("menless women passing bottles between them"). Also a skilled actor, she vividly evokes multiple voices and personalities, focusing on the two biggest influences on the young Alexis: the local librarian who recognized and encouraged her fascination with books, and her childhood friend, Jimmy, a gifted painter. Growing up together, Alexis and Jimmy see their dreams of fame and escape collide with the harsh realities of race, poverty and the quicksand of their internalized wounds and fears.

Particularly effective is Orlandersmith's use of contrasting Alexis' inner and outer voices, pitting her cocky bravado ("I'm going to be a famous writer one day") against self-conscious fear ("Don't laugh at me").

With understated supplemental music and lighting, Simon Levy's sensitive staging deftly showcases his performer's talents to best advantage. Where many monologuists hide behind the artifice of well-crafted writing, Orlandersmith's performance mines brutally honest anguish, longing and beauty that transcend time and place in a voice all her own.

In the end, she leaves us heartbroken, stirred and above all grateful for letting us into her world -- and revealing something fundamental about our own.


`The Gimmick'

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 1

Price: $30

Contact: (323) 663-1525 or

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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