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A CurtainUp Review
Shafrika the White Girl
Larsen wrote this show about her experience being raised in the ultimate multicultural family, ranging widely in age, race and even disability, with no apologies for its focus on her personal relationships with her siblings, parents, and herself. The large and equally multicultural cast acts out various scenes from Larsen's childhood,. It's narrated by Larsen and interspersed with home movies and pictures of the family eating, playing and especially singing. Music is a major part of Larsen's life (in the fall she'll be joining the Broadway cast of Avenue Q in the role of Kate Monster) and much of her struggle to come to terms with her identity and cross ethnic boundaries in a racially polarized world is made easier by her ability to sing and dance.
The show itself has its share of musical numbers, though at times these seem more tacked on to the framework of the story than an integral part of the production. None of the songs are memorable. Still, the performers take on both music and drama with gusto and their commitment is one of Shafrika, the White Girl's best features. Director April Nickell let her cast find its own way and as a result the production crackles with energy, with enthusiasm that's is contagious so that I really did find myself enjoying the fun the actors are clearly having. Larsen in particular is talented and delightfully engaging. . .and obviously deeply affected by her upbringing in a world where not all was hunky-dory. Coming from a family so large and facing so many challenges perhaps made conflict and controversy an unavoidable part of her outlook. But the undercurrent of love is obvious and does tie everything together.
I keep coming back to the story, which is fitting, since it's both Shafrika's greatest strength and its most disappointing weakness. As interesting as Larsen's tale is, it just doesn't work very well as a theater piece. There's a lot of the "workshop" remaining here, with long periods of dialogue between cast members and too much faux-realistic emphasis on what the production should be. Initially these meta-discussions between Larsen and the rest of the cast members are charming, but after a bit the conceit feels amateurish, and eventually the action drags considerably as no one seems to know how to actually end things. This is made worse by a real lack of dramatic tension. Despite a number of ominous rumblings about the "negative side" of Larsen's family, the "bad things" she ultimately relates aren't nearly as shocking as she seems to think they are (her first encounter with racism is a lot milder than her reaction to it, for instance). I was partially kidding about the show's white liberal guilt. I don't want to dismiss Larsen's feelings, but struggling to fit in at Yale or coming to terms with her racial identity in a dance club in Norway strike me as a bit out of sync with the "We Shall Overcome" mantra which is literally and figuratively woven into the fabric of the piece.
Larsen has an intriguing tale to relate but since it's a musical it needs to hold up both artistically and thematically and Shafrika, the White Girl doesn't really do either. This is partly because as children we have a tendency to view everything that happens to us as critically important— but as we grow up, those incidents are put in a larger perspective. We never get that larger perspective and the result is a show more a workshop project than a professional stage show.