Rene Marie is a powerful force in Slut Energy Theory

I knew that René Marie was a tremendous jazz artist — but I had no idea that she was also an amazing writer and an astonishingly powerful actress. Not until I saw Slut Energy Theory. Marie's one-woman play has been promoted as a work about incest and abuse; performances are bookended with cautious before-the-show warnings about language and post-show panels of experts discussing the problems of domestic violence. But while incest and abuse certainly provide much of the play's subject matter, Slut Energy Theory goes far beyond our usual jargon-laden and sanctimonious discourse on the topic. This is a work of art, a powerful, unsentimental and original work that should blow apart all the concepts you've ever held about victimhood, survivor trauma and feminist energy, and reconfigure them in dazzling new ways.

The protagonist is U'Dean, born in rural Arkansas in 1912, and now an old woman speaking to us from the other side of death. Marie has said that U'Dean arrived in her mind — along with three other women who will become the subjects of future plays — and essentially took possession of her, and this common author's boast ("I just sit back and watch my characters interact") seems entirely true in her case. Marie is U'Dean. She has immersed herself so deeply in the character that not a gesture or inflection feels untrue. She knows U'Dean as a child, a teenager, a grown woman. She's not afraid of pauses, because every one is filled with significance, and when she sings, the song arises from the story as naturally and inevitably as crocuses from loamy spring soil. There are no big numbers, no showstoppers, no look-at-me-I-can-hold-this-note-forever bits, just the woman living, moment by moment, in the on-stage world she's created.

"You gonna like me," Marie assures us slyly at the beginning of the piece, and indeed we do. We like U'Dean when she's throwing the word "fuck" in our faces, laughing raucously about the grotesque details of her father's death, describing her sexual adventures in graphic detail, cursing the God that betrayed her, writhing in tears on the floor, empathizing with or confronting us, and explaining — in one of the funniest sequences I've ever seen on a stage — how she got her husband to leave her pussy alone. And at the end, when she's kicking along the sand, splay-toed, singing about "Walking to the Grand Canyon," we downright love her.

Marie's work is emotionally naked yet never embarrassing, because of the intelligence behind it. Or rather, the several intelligences: the instinctual stage intelligence of the born performer; the kind of tough intelligence that lets Marie engage in direct audience interaction without manipulation or dishonesty; the musical intelligence of a first-rate jazz singer. And the script itself can stand alone as a fine piece of writing, rich and humorous, filled with surprises.

Marie came under sustained attack last year for singing the words of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Mayor John Hickenlooper's State of the City address. She was accused of grandstanding and lack of patriotism; even then-candidate Barack Obama weighed in. But the attacks missed the point. Then, as now, she was synthesizing complex experience, working to reconcile the realities she'd faced growing up black in America with the profound love she felt for her country.

Art isn't easy or neat. It confronts the hard issues, has no use for social niceties, pushes constantly at the limits of the acceptable. But at its best, art is transformative. On the night I attended Slut Energy Theory, someone asked about U'Dean's ability to laugh at her own difficult life. Marie responded that there's humor in every tragedy and tragedy in all comedy, and that's the spirit that animates the entire text. Slut Energy Theory balances dangerously between grief and joy throughout, finally erupting into a blinding affirmation not only of its creator's irrepressible artistry, but — and I don't mean this in any mimsy, Hallmark-card sort of way — also of the power of the life force itself, the force that kept illiterate U'Dean laughing, kicking, singing, emotionally vulnerable and entirely sure of who she was in the face of everything a hostile world could throw at her.

 
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