Bailiwick Repertory

The term “empowerment” has begun to pop up like crabgrass. This all-purpose concept now describes almost any assertion, of group or self, that confers a feeling of worth and belonging. Women empower themselves by demanding the right to control their bodies; blacks empower themselves by starting their own businesses; gays empower themselves by standing up to police raids and AIDS discrimination. A wife empowers herself by telling her husband to take out the garbage, a husband by refusing to. You wonder what the hell isn’t empowerment. And the term is pompous: no doubt “disempowering” and “empowermentlessness” will follow.

Yet embattled minorities do need to know they’re not alone; do need to declare who they are and what they believe. Call it self-affirmation or solidarity, but there’s something to be said for entertainment that preaches to the converted, rallies the troops, and tries to reclaim a buried history (or herstory). In that spirit, If You See Yourself, Say Amen also wants to expand the conventional notion of love to fit all lovers.

A presentation in Bailiwick Repertory’s ongoing gay- and lesbian-oriented Pride Performance Series, If You See Yourself, Say Amen is billed as “a spiritual program of performance poetry and music.” Written by Jera Ing-Odin and performed by Anna Brown, Jamika Ajalon, and the author, it consists of six loosely related performance pieces that deal with lesbian love, its universals and specifics, its ups and downs, and the changes it inspires in those who know it.

At the show’s heart lies the truth that there’s both pride and peril in being set apart. Even if Ing-Odin’s poems sometimes ramble into overstatement, they do deliver that dual message, and they display an honest, blunt eroticism.

The perils are evident in the most successful piece, “Symphony Wayne,” in which Brown is a gay woman afraid to visit a lesbian bar for the first time. She’s befriended by an older woman, who assures her that the climate has changed in ways that make the community happier and more secure. The trick, she learns, is to love yourself enough to love another. Worrying about her clothes, the new arrival is told that she shouldn’t concern herself with those who confuse the dress with the woman.

A different worry surfaces in the familiar fare of “It’s Only a Date,” which details a lesbian woman’s fears about the impression she’ll make on a significant stranger. Though Brown delivers this overwritten speech warmly enough, it’s too full of self-analysis and not full enough of specifics about either person.

“Diane: the Eulogy” explores a third trouble, the acceptance of bisexuals by the gay and lesbian communities. A speaker at a funeral service reads a eulogy written for herself by the deceased woman. In it she offers her friends some final advice about how to remedy their love lives; more seriously, she laments the fact that her bisexuality cost her friends on both sides of the fence.

More often than it despairs, though, If You See Yourself repetitiously rhapsodizes. Delivered matter-of-factly by the author, “Sencera” celebrates one woman’s gratitude to a memorable lover who gave her back herself by being so completely herself. Brown and Ajalon behind her act out the poem literally, dancing to their own music.

Inevitable in any gay theatrical affirmation is the ode to coming out. Here the declaration of sexual independence, “No More Secrets,” rejoices in the freedom to take charge: “I have come into myself / and for me / that means / no more curl perms or dyes / no more slick talk when I ain’t got the guts / to look at the truth / and have it look back at me.” This may be the show’s worthiest message–free yourself of self-hatred, and other hate loses much of its venom.

The 90-minute show ends in a song unevenly performed by the author and clumsily directed by Wanda Bishop. Ing-Odin sings uncertainly, “Do you know the way? / Let love show you the way,” a duet with what seems to be her own dubbed voice. Meanwhile Ajalon and Brown stand behind her, awkwardly smiling but neither dancing nor singing. It’s the wrong way to back up a ballad.

The fact that the cast are African American does not noticeably affect the content; they make no effort to establish special status as a minority’s minority. If You See Yourself prefers to celebrate the endurance and resilience of lesbian love. The problem is that the celebration isn’t specific enough. Though Ing-Odin describes her lovers in passionate physical detail, their personalities are generic; they’re amorphous, idealized by memory or by the eye of the beholder. Little irony or humor sparks up the stories.

Though the performers deliver seemingly improvised lines fluidly and confidently, they sometimes get so laid-back that they lose their energy, mumble, and fail to project. A show that bears the title If You See Yourself, Say Amen clearly expects adrenaline from its audience, but on opening night there was no charge. (Perhaps they shouldn’t begin the show with the cast going into a 90-second meditation; a trance is a bad warm-up, especially for an audience.)

If You See Yourself, Say Amen ignores an old paradox: that the more precisely you describe a character, the more connections you make between that person and the rest of the world. This show needs dramatic empowerment.