Phumzile Sitole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy and Mirirai Sithole in ‘If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
For about 20 minutes, Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhafucka, brightly staged at Playwrights Horizons by Leah C. Gardiner, puts a pretty face on its unconventional, West African folktale-based take on the obsession with good looks. During that span, the audience receives an energetic charm offensive of radiant smiles, souped-up acting, thrilling drum beats, colorful accents, fantastical characters, and attention-grabbing costumes (by Dede Ayite), both teenage cool and African traditional.
When it dawns that there’s another hour and a half of this intermissionless children’s theatre-style fantasy-satire, its face begins looking somewhat less pretty.
If Pretty Hurts…, the latest entry in the theater’s ongoing high school-themed sweepstakes (and the third play this month with the f-word embedded in its title), is about how a beautiful woman’s appearance may have a negative effect, not only on others, who feel themselves lacking but on the beauty herself. In a note, Sampson, referencing her experience as an African-American female, emphasizes that “Beauty is a social construct and the definition is in constant flux,” but everyone has the chance to “live beautifully.”
It’s a subject worth contemplating, one Sampson considers significant for black women. As explored here, however, it devolves into nearly two hours of self-conscious theatrics ranging from entertaining to innocuous.
Seventeen-year-old Akim (Níkẹ Uche Kadri, delightful) is the envy of her three “upper society” girlfriends, the sexy Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, noteworthy), the brainy Kaya (Phumzile Sitole, funny), and the laissez-faire Adama (Mirirai Sithole, sincere), each a different physical type. So peerless do they consider Akim that one compares her breath to Febreze.
Akim is aware of her perfection but, because it came to her naturally, and isn’t an accomplishment, doesn’t think it something to be especially proud of. She wishes, in fact, to have some imperfection that would make her more like the other girls but recognizes that she’ll have to get by as she is.
Her overprotective parents, the strict Dad (a domineering Jason Bowen) and the somewhat more lenient Ma (a livewire Maechi Aharanwa), aim to keep Akim’s beauty intact. She’s a Cinderella, yearning for the freedom to party but forced to do her chores.
Commentary on all this is provided by the Chorus (Rotimi Agbabiaka), a cellphone — yes, a cellphone — anthropomorphized into glittering Elton John-like flamboyance, including rhinestone-studded shades and a shock of white hair.
The action, richly lit by Matt Frey, plays out on Louisa Thompson’s nonspecific, circular platform surrounded by a curtain of shiny, hanging strips, with a long, narrow trap available at center. Occasionally, actors rush through the auditorium, forcing aisle sitters to watch their feet.
Akim has a budding romance with the cute, prophetically gifted Kasim (Leland Fowler, adorable). This heightens the already simmering Massassi’s jealousy, inspiring her and her pals to concoct a scheme to liquidate — so to speak — Akim when she sneaks off with them to a celebration.
The broadly comic approach grows darker as we witness tragic events involving a river, in which an underwater scene plays out amid clouds of haze and white-masked spirits dressed as “Southern Baptist-styled mimes” in long, swirling robes.
What follows (some of it obscure) includes a silly development involving the cellphone; ritual magic; a tribal chief’s life and death judgment; and a surreal, ironic finale, its purpose open to debate, featuring Massassi and located before a vanity table.
While If Pretty Hurts… isn’t quite a musical, music is essential, with a score by Ian Scot (who also did the excellent sound design) offering a heavy-on-the-beat foundation for percussion, bass, and keyboard played at either side of the house by Rona Siddiqui and Erikka Walsh.
Musical highlights include a pair of company dance numbers choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. One is an infectiously celebratory number featuring sensuously suggestive moves, the other’s an overlong, waterlogged fantasia dominated by those “mimes” and accompanied by a soul singer (Carla R. Stewart, The Color Purple) with a handheld mic.
Sampson’s script, which includes a self-introductory monologue for each girl, blends hip school chatter with more formal language, including pretentious speeches, especially by Massassi, that sound incompatible with who’s saying them. A few good laughs exist, but they’re usually sparked more by exaggerated comic acting than witty writing.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. To these eyes, If Pretty Hurts… would have been much prettier and hurt a lot less if it washed off half an hour of its excesses.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka
420 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 31
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.