The associative powers of music shape Giovanni Adams’ one-man coming-of-age story Love Is a Dirty Word (through Nov. 26, at Z Space). Under Becca Wolff’s thoughtful direction, Adams condenses his boyhood memories of Mississippi the way the best singer-songwriters do. He turns a series of lyrically written anecdotes into a cohesive series of shifting and corresponding moods. Sometimes they are, in fact, set to music. He’s written original songs that showcase his vocal range as much as they intensify the narrative. At other times he simply puts a record on a working turntable to play the voice of a fondly remembered singer. In either case, music shares equal space with language in Adams’ imaginative life.
First, you hear particular details that locate him in his childhood — the trick of cracking open fresh pecan shells, the sweet, musky fragrance of magnolia blooms, the red color and feel of a river’s comforting mud. Then you begin to see how each anecdote fits together inside the play’s overarching themes. Adams tells us what it’s like to grow up in the South being both Black and gay. The emotional undercurrent of isolation, longing and abandonment starts to filter in through the melodies. His father and then his, to all intents and purposes, stepfather leave his mother, his brother and him. You can feel the hurt and melancholy behind the up-tempo rhythms of his speech patterns.
Love is a Dirty Word is a distinctly pleasing departure from the pitfalls of the genre it superficially resembles. The first person confessional often makes unwieldy demands upon the audience’s sympathy — that we are only there to witness the performer’s trauma and catharsis. Adams isn’t any less troubled than anyone else by his confrontations with homophobia and racism, by the loss of a consistent father figure in his life, by failed love affairs. But he is that rare artist who can recount his experience of pain and prejudice without making his life story — so far — into a maudlin group therapy session.
Instead, he earns our interest and goodwill because of the way in which he’s shaped the raw materials of his early life into a rapturous song of the self. He’s an easy shapeshifter who can summon up his mother and grandparents with much loving specificity. In his mouth and hands, they come alive through their expressions and gestures. As he gets older, there are geographical and temporal leaps in the story that are left unexplained. Once you’ve adjusted to listening in to the poetry of Adams’ monologues, those factual lapses come to seem inconsequential. They also leave the door open for a sequel. One that could expand to a bigger stage, to be peopled with the family members, lovers and friends he so deftly and movingly evokes.
Love is a Dirty Word, through Nov. 26, at Z Space, 450 Florida St, 415-626-0453 or zspace.org