Guided by Voices

'Low' at the Pillsbury House Theatre: A Long, Wild Ride on the Crazy Train

In the dimly lit past of the tribal village, the mentally ill were beset by invisible demons. Or that's what people thought, at least: Whatever the literal reality—today we've given the old terrors names such as paranoid ideation and borderline personality—hearing voices ranting in one's head can sure seem demonic. In Rha Goddess's one-woman play LOW, pretty much all other adjectives fail.

This 70-minute show takes place on a bare white stage with a single, ordinary white chair. Goddess takes the stage in unassuming jeans and a sweatshirt, introducing her primary character, Lowquesha, through the story of a sweet-potato fight at the age of eight. It's not a particularly fond memory—Lowquesha's mom subsequently beats her with an extension cord over the mess she and her sister made. But it's positively rose-tinted compared to what follows.

In the next scene Lowquesha is 16 and appropriately sullen. She sleeps with a book of Langston Hughes poems under her pillow, but at school she snaps when her teacher tears the book while trying to take it away from her. (Her teacher's first offense is the criminal assertion that Hughes can't stack up to Whitman.) Violence follows, and pretty soon our heroine is on a pharmacy full of meds.

Rha Goddess as Lowquesha:  Where is my mind?
Jacques-Jean Tiziou
Rha Goddess as Lowquesha: Where is my mind?

Goddess delivers a well-balanced mix of poetic, hip-hop-tinged narration and harder-edged dialogue. It doesn't hurt that she has the rapid-fire diction of a seasoned M.C. She also has a prose writer's gift for the telling detail. For instance, she likens the feel of the extension cord on Lowquesha's childhood back to tongues of fire. More amusingly, she serves a killer one-liner. Commenting on her job at a hectic coffee shop in New York, she deadpans, "When people ask me what I do, I tell them I talk to addicts all day."

Lowquesha finally loses her job after screwing up her meds, and by now Goddess delivers acting power to match her writing (Chay Yew directs). With her character's hold on reality almost gone, Goddess twitches, glancing furtively about, closing her eyes with weariness from the sheer effort it takes her character to function. When her mother hassles her at this point she blows up yet again—and this time lands in a mental hospital.

The trajectory from here is downward only: Lowquesha's mother locks her out once she's released from the institution. Her successful sister eventually gives her dinner and a c-note, but Lowquesha sinks into homelessness and the netherworld of her own shattered mind. Goddess at one point ramps up her pace of movement and speech as Lowquesha enjoys a spurt of maniac grandiosity. But as the days wear on she becomes increasingly haunted: shaking, bowed, desperate, at one point prostituting herself behind a McDonald's in exchange for something to eat.

By now the action needs to match the chaos of Lowquesha's mind, and Sabrina Hamilton's lighting design crucially frames things, dividing the stage into zones of light and darkness to represent Lowquesha's various passages. During one high, the entire field of vision turns brilliant sky-blue; during a fierce meltdown near the end, everything becomes a positively hellish red.

Goddess leaves Lowquesha in ambiguous straits at the end, and then proceeds to step out of character and begin to deliver a passage about the meaning of what we've just seen. I'll admit, my first fleeting thought was: Holy shit! She's going to ruin a really good show! But damned if Goddess doesn't deliver a concise, impassioned sequence that matches the power and artistry of what came before. In a society that sometimes seems on the verge of madness, with so many of us hanging by our fingernails, craziness may well be waiting outside the door, if it's not already knocking. Goddess delivers a work that blows down the door and tears down a few walls, too.

 
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