Live Nudity, Erykah Badu’s One-Woman Show, Is Hilarious and Poignant. And, Yes, She Gets Nude.
There were sketches, songs and rants. There was weed-smoking, crowd work and dancing. There were visual gags, props and moments when the fourth wall got completely shattered.
And, just as teased, there was even some nudity, too.
The world debut of Erykah Badu’s “one-human” show, Live Nudity — Meditate on Deez, which came at The Black Academy of Arts & Letter’s Bruton Theatre in Downtown Dallas on Thursday night, was as absurd and laugh-out-loud funny as it was poignant and thought-provoking. Over the course of two half-hour acts — cheekily broken up by two back-to-back 7.5-minute intermissions rather than the standard 15 — Badu deployed every weapon in her arsenal, including some new talents that few could’ve anticipated.
Broken up into 13 unique vignettes — delineated by Badu moving from one of the various chairs set up on stage to the next, with her knocking them all off like items on a to-do list — the show saw Badu portraying a variety of characters from across her personality spectrum. Following a rambling direct-to-audience introduction meant to reinforce the notion that this was a largely improvised offering for which Badu was by her own admission ill-prepared, the iconic neo-soul singer started her journey by portraying an overly confident, drug-experimenting teen struggling with God. Among the characters that followed: an aging, ranting couch potato (“Kids today!”); an uproarious, audience-shaming self-help guru; a snacker struggling to speak with her mouth full; a self-doubting sock puppeteer; a stressed-out, car-driving mother pulled over by “the law”; and a hilarious, wise-cracking, rimshot-enabled reality TV court show judge. These personas mostly stood as comic relief, interrupted by assured soliloquies about the African-American experience and the interconnectivity of existence — monologues that proved more intimate and cutting than preachy or droll.
Of course music played a role. Most of her sketches (as she described them) were scored live, off-stage — sometimes tastefully, other times for comedic effect — by her touring band mainstays R.C. Williams (keys), Braylon Lacy (bass) and Cleon Edwards (drums). Other musicians of note taking part in this very first production included her “Hotline Bling” cover collaborator Zach Witness (sound imaging) and Cannabinoid member Richard “Picnictyme” Escobedo (videographer).
Badu would (perhaps obviously) herself get musical, too. First, she employed a loop machine to beat-box and craft live a soundscape that she’d use as background noise for a follow-up skit. Later, she would sing: She performed “Out My Mind, Just In Time” beautifully; but her pitch-perfect “Ode To The Office,” which followed her couch potato sketch and appropriately saw the words “That’s what she said!” repeatedly blasted onto a screen behind her after such lyrical nuggets as “being hard” and “so long,” was designed for and earned bigger laughs.
Laughs came often — remarkably so — in Live Nudity. So too did some turns of phrase. Throughout the show, Badu alternately reminded her audience that “We’re all in this together” and “We’re here to experience the consequences of our choices and judgments.”
That was perhaps an acknowledge of the more edgy material contained within her show. Race was her main target there, and Badu laid herself bare on the subject, literally and perhaps in a manner that was too on-the-nose. Toward the end of her second act, she ducked behind a back-lit screen and undressed from the overalls she wore to that point. Then, under the veil of darkness provided by the stage lights coming down, she slipped into a nearby bathtub and mindfully addressed her subject head on. At one point in this section, she deconstructed the suffix “-ist,” saying that violinists, pianists and scientists love their subjects and know everything about them. To that end, in her mind, being a racist just “means you love your race.” Later, she demanded “freedom for the slaves and for the slave masters.”
Those lines, one imagines, couldn’t have been improvised. But some of the more comedic portions almost certainly were. This was only a stream-of-consciousness performance in the way that an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is. The majority of the directions are set in stone. Still, there remains some wiggle room, and, to be sure, there was no scripting the start of her second act’s opening, which found her standing in theater’s sound booth, berating specific audience members who straggled to return to their seats after intermission.
In all, it was a confident, fulfilling showing. But, sock puppet mastery aside, it wasn’t an altogether surprising one: Badu has long utilized humor in her music and, after having studied theater at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she’s also flashed her acting chops in such Hollywood productions as The Cider House Rules. Aside from the show’s maybe intentionally awkward cold open, Badu looked ever in her element in this, her first formal go at professional live theater.
Still, Live Nudity managed to also feel different — so much so that, at times, Badu’s audience seemed unsure of how it should react to what it was seeing. For that alone, Badu deserves esteem. With this show, she’s found a way to turn on their head any expectations of what her live performance may entail, while at the same time cunningly keeping her long-established talents nearby and at the ready.
Most of all, it felt gutsy. Live Nudity indeed finds Badu nude to the world. That it also does so literally — that’s but an afterthought, really.
Erykah Badu’s Live Nudity — Meditate on Deez Runs Through Saturday, October 31, at The Black Academy of Arts & Letters’s Bruton Theatre in Downtown Dallas. Head here for tickets and more information.