If the title of Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka has you kinda baffled, pay it no mind. It’s merely fronting an insistent, charming allegory of how black beauty is judged in a world too often run according to white definitions.
The play is Sampson’s vibrant 90-minute spin on the time-honored “black is beautiful” maxim, which, incidentally, is attributed to John S. Rock, an African-American abolitionist who was the first black to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Rock employed a version of the term “black is beautiful” during an 1858 speech. It could also be said that in addition to confirming the familiar slogan, Sampson is out to expand on the driving sentiments Christina Aguilera expresses in her beloved “Beautiful.”
In promoting those convictions, Sampson imagines a tale that also draws on elements echoed from Cinderella treatments. She sees Akim (Niké Uche Kadri), considered conventionally beautiful and held under her father’s thumb, treated contemptuously by neighborhood girls Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), and Adama (Mirirai Sithole).
Try as she might to be friendly with the trio, Akim is so controlled by Dad (Jason Bowen) that she’s rebuffed by the jealous girls. The situation is made worse when Massassi’s boyfriend Kasim (Leland Fowler) shows romantic interest in the tall, willowy Akim.
Matters escalate when Massassi—bent on punishing Akim for her beauty—plots with Kaya and Adama to get rid of the rival. She lures Akim to a nearby body of water and contrives a drowning, which turns into two (temporary) drownings when Adama balks at being included in the cruel scheme and takes Akim’s side. In the Cinderella equation, Akim is the Cinderella substitute and Massassi and Kaya are the evil stepsisters.
The river is represented by a six-foot-long-three-foot-wide open rectangle downstage in set designer Louisa Thompson’s floor. It’s part of a gleaming abstract world made of a panoramic silver wall adorned with columns of round bulbs. N. B.: The river comes equipped with The Voice of the Water (Carla R. Stewart), occasionally seen and heard lustily singing original music by sound designer Ian Scot.
In a world overseen by smiling, insinuating Chorus (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Sampson’s lesson on who’s beautiful and who isn’t (unsurprising spoiler: we all are) is told with fairy tale indices. Dad and Ma, worried about the missing Akim, go looking for her and Adama. They’re required to make sacrifices in order to reclaim the young women. Fewer sacrifices are asked for Adama’s emergence from the waters, since Dad’s been insufficiently fatherly towards Akim.
(N.B.: Thompson’s body of water holds no water, just misty billows, which puts it at odds with the longer and wider pool featured in this week’s Daddy opening. That one’s good for swimming, baptism and wet fornication.)
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka unfolds in a place Sampson announces early as “Affreakah-Amirrorikah.” The imagined territory moniker, it should be said, is less off-putting than the contrived name might sound. In it, at one point, an assumedly indigenous ritual occurs. The eight cast members don beautifully-made floor-length black robes (the costumer is Dede Ayite) and perform a rousing dance that Raja Feather Kelly has choreographed. The suave routine includes references to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, especially the “I Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” and—why not?—the “Wade in the Water” sections.
It may be fair to report that If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka may be unfolding in a dream (a nightmare?) experienced by one of the characters. Nothing more need be said other than the dream/nightmare is in the service of Sampson’s determination to bring home her positive message. Interestingly, degrees of beauty known to be discussed within the black community—for instance, the beauty quotient of skin shades—aren’t part of the play’s concerns, perhaps because no longer debated.
Bringing If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka to its vibrant life is proficiently handled by director Leah C. Gardiner. She sees that all the actors maximize the possibilities in a story playwright Sampson cleverly tells by placing it in Affreakah-Amirrorikah, a land, not unlike America, where racism can, in the worst circumstances, turn in on itself.
A final word: The word “fuck” has been used for titles in one form or another so many times by now that authors incorporating it run the risk of relying on a cliché with no remaining shock value. Sampson may be running that risk. So for anyone resisting her work on that account, don’t. See her moving, pressing fable for, well, for its beauty.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be Muhfucka opened March 10, 2019, at Playwrights Horizons and runs through March 31. Tickets and information: playwrightshorizons.org