There’s a disturbing, powerful play hiding inside Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, but it hasn’t worked its way out yet. Sampson is riffing on a Nigerian folktale — a story with a sinister moral that upholds the insidious, socially-ingrained equation of beauty with human worth — and her project is full of frightening recognitions and fierce potential. “Beauty is a social construct and the definition is in constant flux,” she writes in her program note, “but — just like race and gender — its implications are very, very real.” She adds, as a kind of poetic epigraph at the beginning of her play’s script: “In a world where Viola Davis is not ‘classically beautiful,’ First Lady Michelle Obama is compared to an ape, Cosmopolitan Magazine places Black women as examples of ‘trends that need to die,’ [where] the phrase Beautiful Black Women feels more like a mantra than a fact … In this world where beauty is placed out of our reach … We reach.” Sampson’s got her finger on the sharp point of a splinter that goes excruciatingly deep. She’s interested in the psychological violence and internalized misogyny of a value system, presided over by men, which prizes and rewards beauty — always narrowly defined but unquestionably recognized — and encourages comparison and competition, especially among young women, and most especially among young women of color. It could all make for a great, and very scary, play. If Pretty Hurts isn’t quite that play, though it feels like an energetic sketch in that direction.
Sampson sets her story in a hazy, stretchy valley somewhere between the mountains of fairytale archetype and contemporary pop culture. Louisa Thompson’s set is a blank raked platform surrounded by curving plastic walls covered in round lights, big versions of the kind that surround dressing-room mirrors. This bright, exposed place called Affreakah-Amirrorikah, and there, 17-year-old Akim (Níkẹ Uche Kadri) is the undisputed village beauty — which, in a story like this, with nothing beyond the borders of the place in question, means the most beautiful woman in the world. Her mother and father (Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen) are proud and protective in equal measure, and a trio of local girls looks on in jealous wonder. They are the defiant Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), the brainy Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), and the watchful, thoughtful Adama (Mirirai Sithole). There’s also the cute, cocksure Kasim (Leland Fowler), who, like everyone else, has his eye on Akim, though he’s also got a strange gift. “The boy who sees,” an impish, bedazzled narrator-figure known as the Chorus (Rotimi Agbabiaka) calls him. “Sometimes [Kasim sees] the past and glimmers of the future.” Useful!
The original folktale that gives If Pretty Hurts its basic shape is a doozy: Briefly, seven jealous girls attempt to kill a beautiful one by drowning her in a river. The beautiful girl’s father makes offerings to the river spirit and wins her back, and then he takes horrific revenge on the murderous seven by impaling them on spikes and burning them alive. The chief of the village is initially a little miffed by Dad’s actions, but when he sees just how beautiful the beautiful girl is, he calls it all a fair trade. The end.
Holy patriarchal poison, Batman! It’s no wonder Sampson wanted to get inside this story and fuck shit up, and I wish she and director Leah C. Gardiner had gone further with both the brutality and the swift, heightened nature of the fable. At an hour and fifty minutes, If Pretty Hurts feels like it’s carrying a lot of padding, and there’s something leaner and more painful at its center. There’s a lot of winking whimsy in the play, a lot of cutesy leaps into 2019 — “Hashtag: ThrowbackThursday! Hashtag: TheBoyIsMine! Hashtag: Brandy vs. Monica!” — and these get quick, easy laughs, but I’m much more interested in the deeper, grittier humor that sometimes emerges between the characters. The bitterness and disenchantment and the grim, knowing smiles at the appalling way the world spins. The systematic suffering and casual, torturous objectification that’s slowly turning Massassi — who, in the eyes of the male-dominated world, is “hot” but not “beautiful” — into a wild-eyed villain.
Crowe-Legacy is muscular and smoldering as the leader of the belittled girls that Sampson shifts from Akim’s antagonists to her fellow victims. The scene between Massassi and Kasim — after Akim (and, in this version, Adama too) are presumed lost to the river — is particularly sharp and nasty, as we watch Fowler flicker from charming to slick, vulgar, and dismissive. He played Romeo, all chaste embraces and reverent sighs, with Akim, but with Massassi, or “Body” as the boys call her, there’s no such requirement. She’s worth less, and he treats her accordingly.
As Adama, the most reserved and, as it turns out, the wisest and most generous of the girls, Sithole is understated and moving. Sampson and Gardiner have a great opportunity to split the fable open when kind, brave Adama and naïve Akim are swept away by the river, whose spirit is voiced with melodic moans by Carla R. Stewart. But what happens to the girls underneath the waves, though it’s meant to be a theatrical coup, becomes florid in presentation and muddied in meaning. The whole cast dons sparkling robes and white half-masks (Dede Ayite designed the magical realist costumes) and launches into a gospel number about “taking back my beautiful,” thunderously delivered by Stewart and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. It’s supposed to be an awakening, an otherworldly opening of the girls’ eyes to the absurdities and cruelties of the world above, and to their own intrinsic spirit and worth. But it comes off as broadly inspirational, so celebratory that sequence’s critical edge — the fact that the girls are truly seeing the society in which they live for the first time — is dulled. It comes off as a big old dance number, not, as it truly is, an exorcism.
“What we experienced in that river was genuine transcendence,” Akim tells her flustered parents after her eventual rescue. Her friend has an even clearer view: As Akim’s father argues for the execution of Massassi and Kaya, soft-spoken Adama drops the truth on him. “Your willingness to toss me aside and annihilate these girls for the uplifting of Akim is the root of all wickedness,” she tells him, burning with a newfound conviction. “I plead to know why, by your calculations, we must be lowered for her rise?”
This question is the heart of Sampson’s play, but by the time we get to it, we’ve lost a visceral sense of the story’s stakes. If Pretty Hurts needs to actually hurt, but what we’ve been shown has more often felt whimsical than ferocious. It also doesn’t help that, in the Chorus, Sampson has an opportunity to create a sinister figure — a kind of seductive emcee who actually represents all that’s twisted in the original tale, all the violence of our social programming — and she opts instead to make him the embodiment of … Akim’s cell phone. It’s a cute joke (he makes beeping noises and functions as Google Maps along with being a narrator) but it has no ultimate pay-off, no real thematic relevance. He’s a cheap frill that could have been a vital thread.
Somewhat shockingly, Sampson goes for an even cheaper move to tie up her play, a twist that makes the whole thing feel like a hokey episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s doubly frustrating because the sequence that follows — in which Crowe-Legacy looks out at us through a glassless vanity mirror, silently and deliberately taking her time to put on makeup as if she’s donning armor before a battle — is an eloquent slow-burn. Aesthetically, it explains the scenic world (whoever Crowe-Legacy is, she’s gone through the looking glass to become Massassi), and it sums up, in an achingly familiar picture, all the suffering and all the endurance the play wants to talk about. But like a painter adding one too many strokes to the canvas, Sampson doesn’t trust her own powerful image. She tacks on a mantra of self-love for Crowe-Legacy, and, like the river dance before it, the speech softens the edge of the play’s commentary and gives way to a kind of sappy, Instagram-style inspo. If Pretty Hurts is, at its core, more devastating and more perceptive than that. It’s got teeth inside it, but it isn’t biting yet.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka is at Playwrights Horizons through March 31.