Ntozake Shange struck many a nerve with her 1974 Obie Award-winning for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. The "choreopoem" that provided a fresh voice from the African-American woman's perspective is being revived this summer on Broadway, no doubt inspiring interest in Shange's similarly envisioned 2003 combination of poetry, music, dance and the African-American experience.
But as its title suggests, Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla's Dream is less focused, and more than a mite precious. It's also more than a handful for the Kuntu Repertory Theatre, of the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Africana Studies.
Layla is a sprawling look at the African diaspora, with "spirits" from various cultures helping a poet discover her inner strength and get over a bad relationship. It's an ambitious task, drawing from pop culture as much as folk tradition, original poetry, rhythm and movement. But the 11-person cast is unwieldy, and there's nothing particularly novel about the message, or about a "choreopoem" this time around.
The Kuntu production would have been better served with a more intimate staging, perhaps in a thrust rather the proscenium that distances the audiences and muddies the actors' speeches. Given the accents and the amplification, the performers have enunciation problems that dissolve what should be climactic moments like the "Blue Horizon" poem into incomprehensibility. But the ensemble, directed by Vernell Lillie, shows its strengths in moments like a highly rhythmic, choral recitative in the first act.
At the center of the action, Candy Smith credibly portrays the fragility of Layla on her path to self-awareness. An accomplished dancer, she is particularly effective in her duets with Ruel Davis, the bad-boy boyfriend Yves who, alas, is "too witty" and "too good-looking" to dump easily, but "too mean" not to. Indeed, Davis dominates the stage with as much aplomb as Yves does the relationship. Also notable are the richly voiced Ijasneem as the good-boy boyfriend; Les Howard as a leading spirit; and Mamothena Mothupi, in a dramatic poem about violence against women.
Kudos to Kuntu for tackling Layla, which has had only five stagings in its five-year history. This production is lively and colorful, and strikes a few nerves of its own, but also more than its share of jarring dissonances.
Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla's Dream continues through April 5. Alumni Hall (seventh floor), University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org