The Truth About Black Suburban Girls

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Pat Massey

at 11:41 on 27th Aug 2011

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Black American and Latino heritage? Two vibrant histories, two rich cultures: it's almost impossible not to make an interesting show.

Almost.

For Liora Harvin's subject matter rarely concerns the socio-historical. This is a personal account, and it's refreshing to hear how Martin Luther King was unimportant to a twelve-year-old black girl. But this kind of realism is in short shrift, and while the bigger picture may not be Harvin's concern it would suit her far better than most of the material here.

Harvin frames her show as a revue: she will move from telling us about her grandmother to pretending to be her grandmother, and even sings 'Stormy Weather'. For a reviewer who was expecting simple stand-up, Harvin's variety is laudable. But in practice, the words 'Jack of all trades...' spring to mind. The constant is her over-egging, whether in the form of gurning through a Billie Holiday rendition or 'oh my Gaaawd' vocal theatrics. Instead of an introduction to 1980s America, this is more of an assault.

Harvin's technical support is no less questionable. Cynic that I am, I anticipated that problems would befall Harvin's accompanying Powerpoint presentation. And lo, a clip from 'Stormy Weather' (the film) skipped and juddered into an entertainment cul-de-sac. Conversely, I did not anticipate the movement of the soundtrack from 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' to 'Mickey' (“♪ you're so fine, you blow my mind...”). And yet that still reflects better on me.

When Harvin's material matures, as when she discusses her teenage contretemps with Mario the jock, one comes to appreciate it. Perhaps the standout scene in this regard is her imitation of her father. She only ever intimates at their strained relationship, but this portrayal is the more impressive as a result. To whit, this loaded witticism: “Did you quit smoking and drinking?”/ “Well, I quit smoking”.

Her other impressions deserve equal merit. Gender and nationality seem no impediment to Harvin's ability, from Italian Jock to Stereotypical White Headmaster. And despite her small audience, she danced and 'shook her thang' with a zest not common at a lunchtime Fringe show. I am not surprised she has toured with national children's theatres, because in such a role I imagine she would be brilliant. Think Josie Jump on 'Balamory'.

Overall, I would pass on this show. The engaging material is diluted by the forgettable. But should Leora Harvin return to the Fringe having capitalized on her background in children's theatre, 'dynamite' would be the word.

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Patrick Sykes

at 11:43 on 27th Aug 2011

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Usually, the words ‘written, produced, directed and performed by . . .’ trigger ego-shaped alarm bells, but Liora Harvin’s one-woman show is a true credit to her clearly multiple talents. Without a trace of self-pity, she tells the story of her life as an outsider, growing up as the only black girl (with the added complication of being part Costa Rican) in her neighbourhood and her school, and confronting the points at which her heritage and her environment clash.

Each of these tension points is both imaginatively chosen and eloquently narrated, whether it be the slippage between white and black self-grooming habits, the way 1920s Hollywood portrayed her ethnicity, or simply not having a pool, like every other family on the block. Each one is also beautifully described, and Harvin makes use of minute details of the unwritten rules of lawn maintenance and ‘garbage’ to paint for the audience a newly exotic suburbia, charged with sex, Spanish, and anxieties about its repressed origins.

In telling her story, Harvin inhabits many characters by using minimal, carefully chosen props and demonstrating an impeccable degree of control and flexibility in her voice. Especially impressive was her portrayal of her father, after being abandoned by his own mother. This is clearly a fruitful area of interest for Harvin, as she later returns to an uncomfortably beautiful scene in which she narrates an incident of domestic violence from her childhood. The script is sometimes weaker for some of the minor characters, particularly Mario, her first lover, but the story itself is as touching as it is troubling.

Harvin also considers more obviously racial issues, and with characteristic originality, including the cancellation of her new year’s eve party simply because of the colour of her skin, and the paradox of being a twelve year old black girl who cringes at the sound of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ because she would rather have ‘white problems’.

The only thing that really lets Harvin down was the technical production. Aside from sloppy lighting adjustments, the sound effects and projected slides intended to supplement the stories prove counterproductive, and frankly hold back Harvin’s otherwise insatiable energy. She comfortably fills the stage, and would hold the audience even closer if she trusted the strength of her script to stand alone.

Though I am unsure whether to believe Harvin’s concluding claim that the story is a true one, it is told with such considered sincerity that fact and fiction seem merely relative degrees, and irrelevant to the enjoyment of this Fringe gem.

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