If Pretty Hurts...

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Cititour.com Review
Watch out, Regina George: There’s a new “mean girl” in town. Like her white Midwest counterpart, Massassi (the extraordinary Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in a smashing New York debut) is a wealthy, sexy, ruthless teenager, and even has her own posse of gal-pals, the brainy Kaya (Phumzile Sitole) and the sweet-natured Adama (Mirirai Sithole). But unlike Regina, she’ll never been the top dog in her hometown, Afreakhah-Amirorikah, as that honor has been bestowed on the beautiful Akim (the graceful Nike Uche Kardri). And Massassi is not willing to take that slight lying down.

This conflict is the crux of Tori Sampson’s moving, often humorous and slightly overlong “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhf*cka,” receiving a marvelously inventive production by director Leah C. Gardiner at Playwrights Horizons. This much-needed examination of how we all end up slaves to societal constructs of beauty couldn’t feel more timely (especially when seen, as I did, on International Women’s Day).

As for Akim; her beauty is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, her mantra is basically “don’t hate me because my beautiful,” as she flatly points out to anyone who will listen that her perfect good looks are nothing more than a product of luck. Her symmetrical features and lithe body are things for which she will neither take credit nor dispute to make anyone feel better about themselves.

Conversely, her beauty separates her from the townfolk, especially Massassi and her friends – a situation not helped by the ridiculous overprotectiveness of her too-adoring dad (Jason Bowen) and strict mother (Maechi Aharanwa), who refuse to let her leave the house most days or have any fun. Indeed, when she’s finally sent on an errand, she begins a friendship with local boy Kassim (a delightful Leland Fowler), a handsome, exuberant and somewhat unusual lad. And because Kassim is the object of Massassi’s affection, that’s when trouble really begins to be brew.

Given that Sampson’s play is bit one-note in its messaging, it’s a wise choice that it’s been written and staged as an African fable, complete with a brassy talking cell phone/narrator (the wonderful Rotimi Agbabaika), two on-stage musicians, a pair of stunningly choreographed sequences (by Raja Feather Kelly, one featuring the soaring voice of the wonderful Carla R. Stewart) and some noteworthy visual appeal, courtesy of Louisa Thompson’s deceptively simple set, Dede Ayite’s colorful costumes, and, especially, Matt Frey’s incredible lighting design. And the commitment of each member of the cast simply can’t be faulted.

Intriguingly, though, it’s the almost wordless, simply staged final sequence of the show (which I won’t reveal) that packs the strongest punch. Watching it, we all hurt – yet we also leave the theater with hope for a brighter tomorrow.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Rotimi Agbabiaka, Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, and Carla R. Stewart

Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/10/2019
Closing 4/5/2019

Theatre Info
Mainstage Theater
131 West 55th Street
Neighborhood: West 50s
New York, NY 10019