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Nilaja Sun

A three-part one-woman show displays the versatile talents of an up-and-coming writer-performer

One of the most enduring fairytales in theatrical mythology is sudden stardom: The leading lady falls ill on opening night and the dewy-eyed understudy triumphs. The plucky girl in the back row of the chorus catches the director’s eye and is catapulted to center stage. Performance artist Nilaja Sun captures one of those moments in miniature in her brief, funny vignette “Black and Blue” -- the piece that, fittingly, made her suddenly the performer to watch in New York alternative theater circles a couple of years back.

“Black and Blue” recreates a day-camp musical production about those icons of 70’s childhood, the Smurfs. Sun sets the scene for us -- a sweaty New York City park -- and plays all the characters: Signora Rivera, the brassy director; Yolanda, the playground diva, who has been cast as pretty, blonde Smurfette but can’t learn the moves; and 8-year-old Nilaja, a bright little black girl aching to play bright-blue Smurfette. When she volunteers to show Yolanda the steps, and aces them, the kids go wild and Nilaja gets the part -- her first intoxicating whiff of show biz.

Nilaja Sun is a small, wiry woman whose expansive presence fills a stage. Drawing on an astonishing talent for physical and vocal mimicry, her performances bring to life a sequence of closely observed characterizations that almost never veer into caricature. The daughter of an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Sun is part of an informal stable of young artists affiliated with New World Theater, the multiracial, multicultural theater based at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center in Amherst. She has performed there twice before, and has been on the artistic faculty of New World’s Project 2050, the company’s teen-theater workshop that explores, in hip-hop rhythms, the social and political implications of the fact that by mid-century the majority of Americans will be people of color.

Last year, Sun developed a second autobiographical piece in New World’s play lab, New Works for a New World. “Insufficient Fare” traces the comical frustrations and unexpected sorrows of a day in her adult life -- from the loss of a subway metropass in which she had invested her last $15, to yet another humiliating audition for a stereotypical TV role (a black teenage crack-addict mother), to the news of a friend’s sudden death.

Sun brought “Black and Blue” and “Insufficient Fare” back to UMass, along with a brand-new autobiographical piece, “Babylon.” This one, she told me when we spoke recently, is a further reflection on her present-day circumstances, as an artist struggling to make ends meet and as a young woman looking back on her family ties -- her father is a musician, another precarious profession -- and forward to an uncertain future: Can marriage and family coexist with the starving-artist lifestyle?

Nilaja Sun’s three solo works are tied together in a program titled “Mixtures.” They create a portrait of, and a showcase for, a rising young talent who is carving exquisite art out of the hard realities of life.

Nilaja Sun is a recent Princess Grace Foundation award recipient
http://www.pgfusa.com/awards/theater/bios/sun.html


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