Love Is a Dirty Word
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Through July 15
Writer-composer-performer Giovanni Adams sweetly emancipates dirt in a refreshing memoir, Love Is a Dirty Word, beautifully directed by Becca Wolff, now playing at VS Theatre. Not only is there dirt in the title, but a mound of dirt is present in the studio apartment onstage (designed by Rachel Myers).
Why should dirt be shameful? A brief digression: In a literary spectrum of dirt, the Rabelaisian approach gets shitty-dirty-naughty, as when Panurge “bewrays” himself below-decks, i.e., shits his pants: “Nor ought you to wonder at such a mishap; for one of the symptoms and accidents of fear is, that it often opens the wicket of the cupboard wherein second-hand meat is kept for a time.”
The J.C. Powys attitude (more people should read his novels), partly like D.H. Lawrence’s attitude, lands slightly to the right on the smudgy spectrum, indulging muck as an erotic urge toward liberation.
But back to Adams’s solo play with music (assisted by the fine guitarist/arranger Arturo Lopez), innocently appreciating dirt as some children do, luxuriously.
Dirt does rinse off. Shame, however, may require something more.
Adams’s narrative takes us through a poor, Black, Mississippi childhood, sensitive to the marks of regional character. In his rapid, quiet speech with the pressure of a great deal to say, Adams remembers the natural world outside his family’s big white house — the magnolia, the pecan trees — he demonstrates the trick of cracking buttery nuts with his bare hands — the craw-daddies along the creek, the red dirt and the weight of clay when it sticks to your shoes.
He remembers his mother and father first through loving images of a bath, and then through their music. His father is associated with Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” (Adams loses his gifted father to prison.)
Then when he puts on Momma’s music, something curious happens. He is possessed. There’s an invisible Virginia Slim in hand, a drink nearby, and Momma’s dexterous fingers are taking a break from dealing cards. This is a fluid performance of gender, natural to Adams, that anticipates some of the difficulty we will see with his family culture and the lonely imprint of shame on his childhood (to say nothing of racist pressures).
Love Is a Dirty Word, takes the form of “finding a way in the world,” a way toward the unquestionable value of Black America. The story has a rangy itinerary, including episodes at an Ivy League college, success as a coxswain on a crew, liberative studies in Prague, relations with women and men — in NYC, in Compton, and a return to the Mississippi home.
Adams, a great singer, performs several of his own songs in the show. The design team did a terrific job, in addition to Meyers’ set, lights by Derrick McDaniel, costume by Melissa Trn, and sound by Niki Armato.
VS Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through July 15. (323) 739-4411, http://vstheatre.org . Running time: one hour and 20 minutes.