When you watch solo artist extraordinaire Nilaja Sun move through space, her brilliance isn’t always in what you see. The true greatness lies in what she herself is seeing.
This is what struck me so deeply as I witnessed her move with a slippery fluidity in and out of each character that overtook her body. Her solo piece “Pike St.,” now running through Dec. 16th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a showcase of the great work she does, a performer who fully immerses herself into each character at the exact moment they take over her body.
The premise of her story is rooted in her own history of the devastating nature of Hurricane Sandy, the Category three storm that ravaged much of the East Coast to the tune of nearly $70 billion back in 2012. The piece explores characters in her family and in the neighborhood. While her characters range from the nosy neighbor Mrs. Applebaum to her macho father, all the characters are really rooted from one person – the strong matriarch Evelyn.
This is a woman who has many jobs, but one life mission, and that is to hear her 15-year-old daughter speak again. You see, her daughter was not simply a child who enjoyed playing with Play-Doh while eating chocolate after school. Candi, who made a full blown campaign speech while running for fifth grade president in hopes of that experience leapfrogging her to Congress someday, now sits in a wheelchair, her movement limited to only tight, atrophied arm gestures pulled into her chest as if being magnetized. Heavy panting with the hope of a formed word is all that is left of this precocious little girl, her last words the driving force for her mother to keep pushing, and to shoot down anyone who has their doubts about Candi’s greatness. A miracle sits within this child, doubters be damned.
And why wouldn’t Evelyn believe that? Healing is rooted in her family, a gift passed on from her late mother who ran a botanica. She has left her job working for the MTA in order to care for Candi full time and is taking up the education of a healer. Money is tight, but once the miracle takes place, it will come back.
Evelyn and Candi aren’t the only ones who are full of hardships. Both the father and his son Manny are haunted by their stints in the military, but the real battles are yet to be fought, the tiny apartment their battleground. Just look at the darting eyes of the young man, who locks into his father with fierce and dangerous bravado, a stone’s throw away from a most regrettable action. This can only be built from the inside out, and it is what Sun does so beautifully.
In addition to her immediate family, Sun brings light to the aforementioned Mrs. Applebaum, who provides some essential texture to the spirit of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Sun resides. There is a strong diversity in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, with Manhattan itself a playground for the rich these days. She flits with thinly veiled racism that functions more as ignorance, welcoming the Puerto Rican Evelyn to America, even though she helped birth her. Mrs. Applebaum’s education in diversity is probably limited to dancing gang members in West Side Story. She is also devastated to hear that Martin Luther King, Jr. lost his recent battle with cancer.
Sun’s long path through these characters are loaded with a sanguine spirit despite the obstacles they face. There are dance parties, the belief of holding out for better days and references to delicious Cuchifrito. But what hurts so much is that these natural disasters spare no one. A lack of knowledge has devastating consequences, but something beautifully metaphoric rises above the water.
When you witness great monologue work being created, it really does come from two places. What we witness as the audience is clear. And what we see is a woman who gives every character she absorbs a true arc, with each arc providing delightful levity and real, organic pain. We don’t see what she sees or hear what she hears, but we are gifted with the end result, and it is marvelous.
What Sun does beautifully is tell a story. She does this while ridding the room of the baggage the audience most certainly walks in with, especially for those of us who read a newspaper on the daily. She does it with nary a sip of water through 90 frenetic, uninterrupted minutes. But when that water finally comes, she fills our cups with hope, one beautiful and powerful backstroke at a time.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Pike St.”
Written and performed by Nilaja Sun
Directed by Ron Russell
The Word: A powerful 90 minutes through the mind of Sun devastates with pain but dominates with hope.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704
Running TIme: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $90
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org