In “Yankee Pickney,” solo performer Jéhan Òsanyìn mesmerizes her audience with tough stories and unexpected, gallows-humor comedy — about her murdered friend, growing up in a Caribbean household and what it means to be “white-people black.”
As theatergoers are well aware, the phrase “autobiographical solo show” can dredge up two contradictory feelings: hope and dread.
When those kinds of shows are powerful and deft, they can knock the scales right off your eyes. When their performers seem pleading and solipsistic, you’ll leave the theater with an awful case of misanthropy. Fortunately, “Yankee Pickney,” by Jéhan Òsanyìn at Theater Schmeater, is one of the former.
Òsanyìn begins the performance by walking around the small theater as people come in, offering them tea. Then she introduces herself, her dog Garvey (who, on the night I attended, was sitting with a designated minder in the front row) and launches into it: “This is a show … But make your own intermission.” She encourages the audience to come and go whenever it wants — to use the restroom, get a drink at the theater’s bar, whatever — while she tells a powerful, put-you-back-on-your-heels story about growing up as the daughter of Caribbean parents, police violence, and what happened after her “best friend and sister and arch nemesis” was murdered by her husband.
Through April 1, Theater Schmeater, 2125 Third Ave. Seattle; $24-$27 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
Spoiler alert: You won’t want to make yourself an intermission.
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“Pickney” (which means “child” in some parts of the Caribbean) lives at that powerful intersection between performance and real life, where “the show” is a show, but (unlike, say, another production of an Oscar Wilde play) the minute-to-minute stakes are as high as they’d be listening to someone at a house party or on a downtown street corner.
As “Pickney” bends the borders of typical theater, it gets into brave and murky territory, from her being shuttled off to Jamaica as a kid to an interaction in a Kenyan market that shocked her into realizing she was “white-people black” — often thought of as “an articulate African American woman who has struggled in her life to overcome.” Then we hear the sound of a police scanner.
After that experience in Kenya, she realized that as a well-educated woman of color, she was “like condom sex: safe-er.”
In an interview a few days after the show, Òsanyìn said she’d originally planned to perform “Sala Kakuhle, Mama,” a different solo show about her work in outdoor education with the YMCA and the “relationship between folks of color — black folks in particular — and the wilderness.”
But when she began to re-edit the script for the Schmeater production, she realized she was still reeling from the loss of her best friend as well as the deaths of people like Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in a Texas jail cell after being pulled over for a traffic violation. “Pickney,” she said, “is part of a grieving process for me.”
The stage is sprinkled with artifacts from her life that aren’t always explained in the show: a sleeping bag (to symbolize, she said later, her work as an outdoor guide and the fact that she slept in one in her first apartment, after getting kicked out of her parents’ house), a leaning pile of vinyl records, a stack of books. The upstage wall flickers with images of protests, police dashboard-camera videos and photos of scarred slaves.
Meanwhile, she reads diary entries from her childhood: “Terrance in 8th grade, I heard he likes me, too! … He makes me so horny!”
The contrast between the political and the personal — and coming-of-age comedy juxtaposed with adult tragedy — gives “Pickney” its punch.
“The death of this woman I knew for over 20 years made all the deaths of all the black bodies in the world come to my doorstep,” Òsanyìn said in the interview. “And that still makes me fearful.”
Garvey takes the stage at one point, violating the old W.C. Fields rule of “never work with animals or children.” But in “Pickney,” Garvey is an unexpectedly charming asset in the middle of an emotionally charged performance that equates the cause of death of Òsanyìn’s friend and people like Bland as “complications from men.”
“Pickney” is tough stuff, but it’s necessary stuff — one of those shining autobiographical solo shows that make all the bad ones worth suffering through.