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‘Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men’ exploits rather than reveals

“Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men” written performed by Dael Orlandersmith (pictured) directed by Chay Yew runs through Oct. 28 Goodman

“Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men,” written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith (pictured) and directed by Chay Yew, runs through Oct. 28 at the Goodman Theatre Owen Theater.

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‘Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men’


When: Through Oct. 28

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $20-$40

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Updated: November 10, 2012 6:16AM

Here is the conundrum in talking about “Black N Blue Boys/Broken Men,” writer-actor Dael Orlandersmith’s one-person, multiple-character play, now onstage at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre:

The whole subject of child abuse — whether in the form of sexual molestation, other forms of physical violence, emotional abuse, or any of a long list of horrific and invariably thorny problems associated with dysfunctional families, troubled foster care and group home arrangements — is almost too hot to handle.

On the one hand, it is common knowledge that children, the most vulnerable members of society, can be victims of the very worst society has to offer, most often at the hands of their own caretakers. We also know that government support for family services is woefully lacking. But more crucially, it is a known fact that any official interference in the parent-child relationship — whether by relatives, teachers, neighbors, doctors, therapists, social workers, the courts — is seen as an “invasion” of privacy by some parents, even “a witch-hunt,” and is often resented and repulsed with a vengeance, sometimes until it is too late.

So why do I have a problem with Orlandersmith’s show, a co-commission by the Goodman and California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Chay Yew?

On one level I find it condescending. The horrors she describes as she assumes the personae of a series of boys and men who have been damaged by various forms of abuse are indeed hellish, but they are not news to anyone who reads the papers.

At the same time, the whole thing often feels more like exploitation — full of tabloid shock value — than revelation.

A heavyset woman who can move with macho swagger and assume a number of accents (notably Latino and Irish, with the black ghetto voice missing), Orlandersmith, a strong enough actress, gives us the testimony of the abused in the form of embroidered composites of real cases. Some of this testimony comes by way of the children trapped in the midst of it all; the rest comes from adults never able to fully escape their pasts, and sometimes caught up in repeating the very behavior that so damaged them. We also hear from a hardcore deviant himself.

The first voice is that of social worker and writer who finally made it out of such a nightmarish world (his “father” called him his alcoholic mother’s “pimp kid”), in large part as a result of finding refuge in the public library. But, as we learn, he is never really free of the fallout.

Another victim, an adolescent who has been repeatedly molested by his own mother, has watched as his father could offer nothing but denial. He has been in and out of 11 group homes, and eventually ends up as a male pimp himself.

There also is an Irish kid whose family moved from Belfast to Manchester. He grew up as the victim of an angry alcoholic father’s rages and insults and an impotent mother (as well as a non-responsive neighborhood). He, too, ultimately flees the “scene of the crime,” thinks he has prevailed over his past, but visits latent violence on the woman he loves — who just happens to be a rich girl.

And then there’s the precocious little swimmer (children do have a sexual awareness, Orlandersmith reminds us in rather creepy fashion) whose own uncle does the dirty deed.

“Black N Blue Boys” was no doubt meant to be an eye-opener, but it feels much more like a useless shock treatment to me.

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