DOWNTOWN — Los Angeles has a lot of black box theatre. The kind where all 99 members of the audience can hear the soundboard changing cues and view all $10 of the theatre company’s production budget onstage. Los Angeles has a lot of cringe-worthy theatre.
But occasionally, a piece comes along that is so compelling, so beautifully structured and played with such raw honesty that it transcends the boundaries of the theatre walls. “Doodu Boy,” at the Santa Monica Playhouse in a limited run, is such a piece.
Conceived, written and performed by Jamaican artist Stefhen Bryan, “Doodu Boy” is an autobiographical journey of such searing pain, its miracle is in just how much you laugh your way through to its poignant, but triumphant conclusion.
Bryan collaborated for two years on “Doodu Boy” with director and dramaturgical adapter Jared Scheib, and their friendship is unlikely. Bryan — as we learn in the play — grew up surrounded by poverty in Jamaica, graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics and ended up teaching English half a world away.
Scheib is a self-described artist-entrepreneur from Texas who attended USC to study film production and neuroscience as an inaugural member of the Brain and Creativity Institute. Together, they illustrated Bryan’s life from abused childhood through a youth struggling for identity, to adulthood stripped of hubris, revealing a hard-won peace. It makes for a mesmerizing 95 minutes.
This is theatre at its most elemental; a lit stage, two rectangular boxes that become a number of different props, no musical cues and one man. Bryan begins his story as a young boy in Kingston, living in a one-room house with a mother whose fierce love is applied as liberally as her regular beatings given to ensure his righteous path to God. In Bryan’s performance, you can feel the sting of each whack of his mother’s supple hickory stick.
He earns the name “Doodu Boy” in a hilarious enactment of a childhood moment of innocent play gone wrong, and it just fuels the boy’s determination to escape the indigence of his home life for the bright lights and assuredly big city adventures his father lives in Brooklyn. When “Stevie” finally gets to leave Jamaica to go live with his father, in his own bedroom, with a cool dad who drives him around in cool cars, he can’t believe his luck.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out so well. “Junior” Bryan is “tall and skinny like a coconut tree” and he has the cool cars, but not a shred of paternal instincts, and his ultimate rejection of Stevie is scathing and confounding. However, through the kindness of strangers, a lively intellect and a lot of psychotherapy, Stefhen comes out of an itinerant adolescence with a degree from a noteworthy Southern California university and a determination to show his father that he made something of himself.
But Junior isn’t ready to hear it. His rebuff of his son is agonizing and infuriating and very, very funny. In his rebound, Stefhen finds himself in Japan, reveling in the “rice fields” of nubile, willing young women and burying himself in a culture a world away from his own. It’s a good fit; Bryan’s public description of deflowering his girlfriend is so forthright and hysterical, it is a tribute to her good nature that she is still married to him.
But, if, as Faulkner said, the past is never dead, Bryan finally learns how much it’s not even past. Some long overdue candor from his mother tells Stefhen more about his father than he probably wants to know, but also allows him forgiveness and the chance to see the lengths people go just to cope with so much unfairness of things.
Ultimately, Bryan’s new sense of identity is ready to seek some kind of resolution with his father. Their inevitable confrontation is heartbreaking, but, somehow, you know Stefhen is going to be OK.
Bryan’s performance is astonishing. His enactments are so spot-on, you can smell the leather of that new car on the bare stage and see the colorful fabric of a Jamaican woman’s dress. Playing some half dozen characters, he moves seamlessly between roles, transforming vocally and physically with such precision and emotional investment that you would swear there was more than one person on stage.
“Doodu Boy” was originally sponsored by the Jamaica Cultural Alliance as part of their mission to expand American awareness of Jamaican culture and heritage. But Bryan’s tale surpasses cultural identity and allows us a peep into the frailty and power of the universal human spirit. This is story telling at its very finest.
“Doodu Boy” plays at the Santa Monica Playhouse Sunday, Dec. 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets may be found at: http://dooduboy.com.