Echo Brown has hidden depths. Her new solo show at the Marsh, Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, seems at first like a bit of light entertainment. Brown plays a version of herself—a 23-year-old African American Dartmouth grad living in New York City. And the setup, as she puts it, is straightforward: “Ryan, the Brooklyn hipster from Portland, Oregon, is on his way over to deflower me right now.” Brown's stage self is giddy and nervous. She calls her friend every few minutes. The rest of the time she tells all about herself, Ryan and what brought her to this momentous night.
Brown is bright, bubbly and funny, and only gradually over the course of the one-hour show do we find out how hard-won and carefully cultivated that attitude is. Her shyness with Ryan, her discomfort with compliments and the fact that she’s waited this long are all rooted in some serious self-image issues reinforced by the society she grew up in. She's battled with the routine racism and sexism still prevalent in America, the kids who told her she was ugly because she was dark-skinned, the mother who warned her to just stay away from “mens” because they’re all no good. When Brown talks about these wounding things, her passion and vulnerability are devastatingly effective.
The rest of the time the show is funny, with wry observations about, among other things, hipster culture and the racial politics of dancing. (There’s some audience participation involved in the latter bit.) Describing her Craigslist date’s beard and plaid shirt aesthetic, Brown says, “Ryan’s definitely a lumbersexual, and it really turns me on.”
Brown is a magnetic performer, both as her effervescent self and in the personae of the often hilarious characters who pop up in her story. The character of her mother is insistent and larger than life, while Ryan is amusingly plodding in his speech. Her roommate is blithely chatty with a girlish interrogative lilt.
Brown’s day job could be a play in itself -- she investigates police officers charged with misconduct. The dismissively recalcitrant veteran of the force that she embodies as an example shows how difficult it is to make a dent in the entrenched police culture that’s been much in the news of late.
There are one or two awkward moments that could be ironed out -- most notably the most gut-wrenching scene in the play, a major revelation that gives us a whole new understanding of how important this night is to Echo. At first it’s unclear what’s going on or how we got there from the previous scene. The end of the scene packs a tremendous wallop; it’s just that it takes a little while for the viewer to catch up.
But there’s so much powerful ground covered in the seemingly lighthearted setup of preparing for a date that it’s pretty dazzling how smoothly Brown makes it flow (with the aid of monologue maven David Ford and director Scott Plate). Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters is an alternately intoxicating and sobering whirlwind of a show that's well worth weathering.
Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters runs through June 6, 2015 at the Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org.