By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson
Hard to describe is an understatement for the one-woman show “No AIDS, No Maids, or Stories I Can’t F*ckin’ Hear No More,” written and directed by Ball State graduate Dee Dee Batteast (which she has performed elsewhere as a Fringe show), performed by LaKesha Lorene at the Phoenix Theatre.
In a stage set reminiscent of Mister Rogers (shout out to designer Mejah Balams), Lorene enters and, appropriately, changes her shoes. But the lessons she has are not for children.
With film and television stills and clips for emphasis, we are confronted with the fact that Black and Gay characters continue to fall into predictable tropes, visual stereotypes, and predictable – even expected – caricatures. Even if we go beyond the gay man (usually played by a straight man) suffering and dying of HIV/AIDS, or the Black person relegated to servitude (Are we actually past that? “The Help” was in 2011.) there is one character type that never goes away, the legendary Magical Negro, as well as our best friend, the Magical Gay.
You would expect a show with sitcom and movie comedy bits and an upbeat woman to be funny. But when our Moderator implores us, “Laugh for me!” it suddenly becomes difficult. What we see before us in this moment is a shuffling, dancing Minstrel player, someone an audience 100 years ago would have laughed at easily and heartily – perhaps even 75 years ago. This shock to the system even wears on Lorene, as she struggles to keep the Magical past in our yesteryear, and work towards a new norm.
However, she laments, we are “shaping the new generation in the mold of the old.” To get a role, to make a living, you must pass the audition, where the white casting directors have their expectations, and will eventually find the eager young actor willing to bend to them.
While this is more a lecture, or elaborate sort of TED talk, rather than the stand-up one-person you might have expected, “No AIDS, No Maids” is not dry. You are challenged, but also amused (some laughs you won’t feel guilty for) and even a little entertained while you get plenty to think about one the ride home, as well as be reminded of when you see a non-white and/or non-straight character on the screen. This presentation gives perspective to the push for more “normal” characters of the types we used to automatically treat as otherwise.
Batteast’s trust is well placed in Lorene, who commands our attention for the full hour, even when she has ducked out of sight for a moment to put the old suit on – or to cast the damn thing away. We look forward to seeing her in her next role, which we suspect won’t involve cleaning up or helping some White person find their purpose.
This show runs through May 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.