Berkeley Rep’s latest production leaves audience emotionally battered

black n blue boys
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When the lights come up on “Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men” a simple white-on-black title card projected on the back wall introduces us to Flaco, the first of five characters that writer and actor Dael Orlandersmith will inhabit over the course of the play.

At first glance he seems normal enough. He has a sweet, harmless physicality that seems at ease with the sparse stage setting. But there is something not quite right in his voice. He has a nervous sensibility, like the innocuous lamps that somehow manage to menacingly lour over the stage. Like the sinister light of Picasso’s “Guernica” — they seem to illuminate ever more darkness rather than chase it away. We know this peace cannot last. And it doesn’t. In the next two minutes we are introduced to his dreaming, drinking father. If that was not enough, we meet his mentally ill mother who — on the instructions of the imagined “Daisy King” — threatens to kill Flaco if he does not consent to have sex with her.

This first scene sets the tone for the rest of the play, which over the course of an emotionally-wearying 90 minutes (without an intermission) takes the audience on a journey through the psychology of male victims of violence and sexual abuse victims.

The play is performed as a series of vignettes in that each focus on one of the five men and their experiences. Orlandersmith attempts to give a voice to those who — for reasons of pride or perceived gender traits — are kept silent. Herself a woman of color, she is uniquely placed to shed light on those who so easily disappear into society’s patriarchal majority. Indeed, Flaco’s story directly addresses this when he speaks out to his father who responds in an alcoholic haze that father denies that “men do that to girls and boys, but not women.”

There is a desire for empathy and understanding that runs under the stories. We see the horrific ripple effect as those who were victims of sexual abuse become criminals themselves, as Uncle Tenny does when he rapes his own nephew. Or those whose childhoods were so rife with violent, alcoholic parents they were almost inevitably condemned to be brought low by these vices themselves. The play walks a fine line between using this to vindicate criminals and imploring us as a society to understand that criminals are often victims themselves.

Orlandersmith is uniquely equipped to give them a voice. Her ear for her characters’ unique cadence and vernacular lends a gritty authenticity to the work. The word “chameleon” is often bandied about to describe gifted performers, but in Orlandersmith’s case the metaphor is valid. With no set, props or costume, she communicates these five characters with all the faculties of her craft. From the heavy, dragging physicality of a rags-to-riches British immigrant to the nervous uncertainty of a fragile, 11-year-old African American — she commutes through characters with ease.

That is not to say her performance was perfect. Orlandersmith’s accent for Ian — a victim of domestic violence from Belfast, Northern Ireland — was weak at best. Intended to sound Northern Irish-cum-Manchester, it was a general mess of many accents from the British isles. She also fell into the trap of using the American term “soccer” for the British term “football.” Whatever the reason for this — be it poor researching or not trusting her audience to distinguish between the British and American uses of the word — small inaccuracies in a play that stakes so much on gritty authenticity take the audience out of the plot.

“Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men” is clearly not for the faint of heart and I suspect many will go away wondering whether Orlandersmith revels too much in the darker areas of human nature. That would be to give in to the play’s chief antagonist: the silence that surrounds these cases. For the play’s polemical vitriol, we should be thankful, for these five characters represent many hundreds of thousands more. In Dael Orlandersmith, this silent minority might finally have found a voice.