Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 5, $49-$89
“There can only be one star. So why you hatin’?” Chorus (Rotimi Agbabiaka) asks at the beginning of Tori Sampson’s chaotic If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, which opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons. The 110-minute play is a contemporary folktale investigating the concept of beauty, both inner and outer, as it relates to black women, a mashup of “Cinderella” and “Snow White” as seen through the lens of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” video. Akim (Níkẹ Uche Kadri), considered the most beautiful young woman in the village of Affreakah-Amirrorkah, is about to turn eighteen, but her overprotective parents (Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen) have forbid her to attend a society party honoring the milestone. Three of her frenemies (think evil stepsisters), Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole), and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), are going and lord it over her as they jealously plot.
“She’s not afraid of us rubbing off on her. Akim’s scared if people see her too closely then we’ll notice that she’s flawed like the rest of us,” Kaya says, to which Akim responds, “Actually, I’d like that very much. Maybe you can discover a flaw I’ve tried but to no avail.” Massassi gets particularly perturbed when her supposed intended, local slacker Kasim (Leland Fowler), starts hanging out with Akim. Kaya says, “We have to find a way to make her ugly. ’Cause for real, that’s the only way Kasim will chill.” Massassi offers, “Oh! Let’s pour Nair in her shampoo! All her hair will fall out.” Adama adds, “She’ll just end up looking like a better version of Lupita N’yongo.” As the party approaches, the stakes grow higher, reminiscent of Jocelyn Bioh’s recent School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, in which a group of students seek to be named Miss Ghana. (In fact, two members of the fine If Pretty Hurts ensemble, which also includes Carla R. Stewart as the Voice of the River and musicians Rona Siddiqui and Erikka Walsh, appeared in School Girls.)
Directed by Obie winner Leah C. Gardiner (Born Bad, The Ruins of Civilization) and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Everybody), If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka is all over the place, with a scattershot, choppy narrative that often feels unfocused. However, it makes some smart observations about beauty, self-esteem, and envy in both poignant and humorous ways. “Beauty is neither your accomplishment nor your failure,” Akim points out, while Chorus, a living cellphone who is a wildly fashionable mix of the stage manager from Our Town, the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella, and Flavor Flav from Public Enemy, tells the audience, “Hierarchy makes the world go round, folks. And if given the chance, we’d all covet that number one spot.” Louisa Thompson’s bright set feels like a game show, with a round central platform surrounded by a semicircle of dozens of rows of lightbulbs that turn on and off to create frames and doorways while often evoking the feeling of a giant makeup mirror as the characters look at themselves and at us, letting us all know that each one of us is a star. (The lighting is by Matt Frey.) The bittersweet finale firmly situates the fable in the real world, reminding us of the struggle so many women face every day.