It’s one of the hardest titles to gain in life, one of the proudest and yet most painful to carry. It means not only that we have been through hell, but that others who bore the journey with us were left behind, casualties.
As it happens, I’ve seen two plays in a row about survivors.
In the solo show Young Gifted & Fat, Sharrell Luckett talks, chides, mimics, reminisces, jumps, dances and sings us through her journey.
She shares her story with terrific energy and winning humor, but there’s no mistaking it — she’s a survivor. And her path is soaked with heart’s blood.
After a “normal” childhood in suburban Atlanta, the vivacious, intelligent girl was sucked down a rabbit hole — suddenly, she was fat. A decade and a half later, with a ticket to grad school in faraway St. Louis, she lost 100 pounds — and popped out of the rabbit hole into a world whose rules she hadn’t learned.
Luckett courageously — and wisely — weaves sexuality as a main thread in her story. Early on, she invites us into the joyfully sensual play of small children (an innocence many of us had buried); we then share her stunned surprise at being punished, shamed by adults. And then we share her first death — abruptly and utterly cut off from her emerging self, her desire to love, shunned and mocked as “the fat girl.” Not a girl at all, except in her lonely fantasies, but a thing nobody wants, or even wants to be around.
Luckett doesn’t dwell in her solitary cell, just holds us there long enough that we can’t forget it. Then she swoops us to what our culture pretends is success — losing all that weight, and becoming a “slender girl.” In a new body and a new city, she giddily reunites with her lost self as a sexual being allowed to love, invited to belong.
But she’s not too dizzy to notice that her years in fat prison have left her ignorant, defenseless. She didn’t get to learn how her body and her feelings might connect, or what the rules for dating and sex, for connecting physically and emotionally with other people, might be. This late-come learning is dangerous and painful. Wisely, she takes it as the topic of her academic work.
She also takes us to yet another surprise. After her PhD, after she wins a faculty post at a university, there’s still something missing. It’s the fat girl she left behind. Excruciatingly awful as it was to be her, she was her — and she can’t move forward in life, she realizes, unless she brings her along. Even if it means showing up as “that skinny bitch” at fat support groups.
Luckett’s performance is non-stop and dazzling, supported by the original music of Rahbi Hines and the visuals of Guy Thorne, deftly directed by Luckett’s longtime mentor Freddie Hendricks (who flew in from Atlanta). Of special note is the set design — entirely made of prison bars (including a cell she briefly occupies, then folds into non-existence), littered with snack food containers and draped with plus-size clothing.
Luckett’s hard work as a writer and actor — and the work of her talented team — doesn’t just amuse. Young Gifted & Fat is a true survivor story.
It honestly confronts us with our cruelties — toward our children’s innocence (and our own), toward anyone who is fat or otherwise different. But Luckett and company don’t lecture. They charm us into following a life, feeling its joys, enduring its loneliness and losses, and moving toward wisdom.
Young Gifted & Fat, by Sharrell Luckett, directed by Freddie Hendricks.
At the Edison Studio Theatre, CSU – Dominguez Hills, 1000 E. Victoria St., Carson.
Two performances remaining — Saturday June 14, at 2 and 8 pm.