30-seconds matters when you stand up to sexual aggressor in a crowded elevator, his threats escalate, and noone will have your back

[I laughed when I first saw this review the morning after the show opened at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. My husband and the director, as well as my friends were enraged – though a few appreciated my dark sense of humor enough to understand why I laughed. My mother said, “Well, she just didn’t know what she was talking about.”

My mother was right: 30-seconds matters when you stand up to your aggressor, his threats escalate and noone in a crowded elevator will have your back.]

February 21, 1994
‘CUSTARD PIE’ DOESN’T CUT IT: 30-SECOND INCIDENT IS THIN FODDER FOR PERFORMANCE ART
Author: JUDITH GREEN, Mercury News Theater Writer

“INDIGO Lady” persuaded me that Nena St. Louis was a writer to watch. But “Essays on Anger and Custard Pie” proves she’s not a performance artist.

Moreover, just as one swallow does not a summer make, one fine piece does not keep a writer immune from cliches, purple patches and inflation — the tendency of performance art in general to make something out of nothing.

“Custard Pie,” which leads the 1994 “Lift Every Voice” festival at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, makes far too much out of a 30-second incident of sexual harassment in an elevator. St. Louis plays herself, three junior executives and a wealthy client, three secretaries, two street toughs who leer at her and a timid black woman who effaces herself against the paneling.

She also plays the spirit of her feisty great-grandmother, whose custard pie, a remedy for pre-menstrual blues, was a family tradition. (Beating eggs for the custard worked off the tension and eased the cramps.) However, the spirit visits her as the result of a piece of custard pie at lunch, so St. Louis prefaces Grandmother Lilly Griggs’ remarks with a belch, which grows more and more unlovely with repetition.

That’s the first half, which is tolerable. In the second, a nightmare sequence, all these characters come back and visit.

The elevator incident can’t carry the kind of spiritual or social epiphany with which St. Louis burdens it. Besides this, the piece is grossly overwritten and the characters shallow. As an example of both, she calls the junior executives, who won’t defend her against the mashers, “the cowardly curs they surely were” — a lot of bad writing for such a short passage!

The piece has improved (some) since I saw its first draft last fall at the Marsh, and the hand of director Ifa Bayeza is apparent in the staging and, especially, the lighting, which isolates St. Louis in the elevator or her own bedroom, as need be. But the director can’t create an actor where there isn’t one. St. Louis’ mugs and grimaces aren’t acting, and her girlish voice hasn’t enough color or texture for character.

Nena St. Louis wrote “Essays on Anger and Custard Pie” — and tries to act it.”

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