When it comes to a conflicted identity, actor-playwright Giovanni Adams grew up in Jackson, Miss., saddled with a daunting trifecta: being black, Baptist and gay. The struggle to fit those fragments into a coherent life provides the narrative arc of "Love Is a Dirty Word," his moving and ultimately inspiring new solo memory play at VS. Theatre.
An engaging storyteller with gravitas and a smile that can light up the stage, Adams re-creates pivotal scenes from his childhood to the present, complete with skillfully rendered characters that shaped his world. Their voices and personalities — his charming but unreliable street hustler dad, his stoic lovelorn mother, his deeply religious grandmother and various colorful friends, mentors and love interests — all spring vividly to life in a fine performance.
Adams frames his journey as an effort to recapture the fleeting sense of safety he recalls in the opening scene, with little Gio at age 4 taking a warm bath in the arms of his father. That happiness quickly slips away with the father's incarceration, the family's shifting fortunes and his deepening disconnect from the strict standards of masculinity demanded by those around him. After hitting rock bottom in Hollywood — "the undisputed mecca for doe-eyed dreamers" — Adams' poetic odyssey ends with new understanding and acceptance that leave him "safe at last in my own skin."
Under Becca Wolff's finely tuned direction, Adams' delivery maintains precise and at times musical cadences (with occasional acoustic guitar accompaniment from Arturo Lopez) as he glides seamlessly from vivid regional dialect to eloquently crafted prose. "Let us harvest together," he urges, "from the muck of our lives the good, leave the poisoning behind."
What distinguishes the piece amid a crowded field of autobiographical solo works is its unwavering commitment to sharing history as it's felt rather than analyzed. Most commendably, Adams focuses on details that serve his larger artistic themes rather than self-aggrandizement. He invokes his experience as the coxswain of the championship Yale rowing team to illustrate the difficulty in getting his family to appreciate his life choices; the fact that he also graduated from the Yale School of Drama never comes up, but the fruits of that training are evident throughout the play.
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‘Love Is a Dirty Word’
Where: VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; ends July 15
Information: (323) 739-4411 or www.brownpapertickets.com
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
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