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If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 10, 2019

Mirirai Sithole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Phumzile Sitole,
Rotimi Agbabiaka, Níke Uche Kadri
Photo by Joan Marcus

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. Is there a less appetizing title out there right now? What this one tells you is that Tori Sampson's drama at Playwrights Horizons will trade heavily in feelings about appearance, and do so in parlance that may not be attractive. Actually, there's more high-flown poetry than vulgarism in her writing, along with an odd fusion of storytelling techniques, ranging from dance to folk tale to Story Theatre-like stylization to Brechtian irony to girl-talk sitcom. Some clever devices, too, like having the narrator, or Chorus (Rotimi Agbabiaka), portray, if I'm getting this right, the heroine's cellphone. Do such disparate elements coalesce? Well, no, and Sampson's main point seems to be . . . if pretty hurts ugly must be a muhfucka.

Pretty hurts for Akim (Nike Uche Kadre), the tall, stately, seemingly blessed young lady of the not-very-well-defined town of Affreakah-Amirrorikah. No such place exists on the map, but presumably we're in Nigeria. The town seems relatively prosperous, and the bright young teens we spend so much time with have a ready command of pop culture references, so let's roll with that. But a little more sociological context would be welcome.

Akim is the loveliest of the bunch, at least according to the Eurocentric standards of beauty Sampson is railing against, and she finds her gorgeousness a burden. How much easier, she soliloquizes, not to be beautiful; "it is such a simple life that ugly people are granted." That doesn't sit well with quiet Adama (Mirirai Sithole), hanger-on Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), or, most vocally, jealous Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy). They're all about to turn 18 and celebrate at a big dance, which Akim won't be attending. In fact, her perpetually worrying mother (Maechi Aharanwa) and strict dad (Jason Bowen) barely let her leave the house, the better to preserve her beauty and encourage an aura of mystery about it. None of the other three girls is actually ugly; they just conform less well to the fashion ideals relentlessly proffered by Western culture. (Sampson says she was inspired by the media razzing Michelle Obama got as First Lady. Yes, some onlookers denigrated her looks, but didn't they mainly populate the Fox News bubble? And didn't their judgments have more to do with political spin than honest observation?)

Maybe her parents are right to keep her on a tight leash, because once Akim does venture out on her own, nothing but trouble awaits. Kasim (Leland Fowler), the well-put-together walking mass of testosterone who's already semi-pledged to Massassi, flirts with her, and Akim likes to flirt back. What will happen is so shrouded in metatheatrical devices that it may baffle the unfocused viewer, but essentially, the girls lure Akim to the river and drown her in it, then drown Adama for trying to save her. While dead, the two girls enjoy a sustained state of safety and contentment. This is illustrated by not one but two sequences of gods (two of the actors in masks) leading them in dance, while the Voice of the River (Carla R. Stewart) circles the stage and auditorium with a mic too close to her lips, indulging in impressive vocal pyrotechnics that would not be out of place on America's Got Talent.

Akim's parents pray to the river god, or juju, and offer up most of their possessions, and the river juju apparently hears them, coughing Akim and Adama back up. The rest of the action has to do with what to do with Massassi and Kaya (should we kill one of them for attempted murder? Both?) and Massassi's realization, in a well-written and touching though overlong finale, that yes, by any standards, she's beautiful.

What a noisy play. So much arguing — among the girls, among the parents, even the cellphone gets ornery — and sound designer Ian Scot, who also wrote the music, keeps everything dialed up to 12. Even the more highfalutin dialogue (Massassi to Akim: "You need us to live — bitterly miserable, constantly loathing, meticulously dissecting — so that you can exist in all your glory, and in perfect fuckery fashion my attempt to obliterate you plagues me as the deranged, jealous one") blasts the eardrums. It's all in that long-vowel West African accent that can be hard to decipher. Some of the dialogue's good and fresh, and when Massassi, Adama, and Kaya are indulging in girl-let's-talk gossip, you may think you've stumbled in on Mean Girls, or School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.

But If Pretty Hurts never stays in one place for long. The storytelling's now-naturalistic, now-metaphorical, now-monologue, now-dialogue, now-pantomime, now-dance; and Sampson's principal concern, the unfairness of beauty standards, is stomped into the ground. It also pervades her author's note, the stage directions ("Grant audiences the gift of basking in beauty beyond Eurocentric measurements"), and the artistic director's program note, which quotes Beyonce's "Pretty Hurts" lyrics at length. We get it, guys, and Playwrights Horizons has expended a lot of resources to drive this one simple point home. Leah C. Gardiner's direction plays tricks (sending the cast out into the house, spotlights chasing actors, encouraging audience shouts). Matt Frey's beautiful lighting conjures up everything from orange sunsets to disco rainbows, and Dede Ayite's costumes are an eye-filling Nigerian fashion parade. Louisa Thompson's functional set is mostly a glass curtain punctuated by theatrical lights, and Raja Feather Kelly choreographs one dynamite dance, though it doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. Among the perfectly capable cast, the standouts are Agbabiaka, who has the most fun, and Sithole, whose Adama is a welcome isle of relative calm amid all the shouting and hyperactivity.

I didn't much like If Pretty Hurts, but if you're fond of folk tales, Story Theatre-like metaphors, flowing costumes, and youthful hormones parading the stage, you may have a whale of a time. There are some good scenes, especially the last, and Sampson occasionally seems on the verge of saying something profound about self-image, or vanity, or the desire to conform vs. the desire to stand out. But all that damn meta keeps getting in the way.

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka
Through March 31
Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral