'Naming True' is a parable of storytelling and personal loyalty.
Natalie Symons’ “Naming True” shares the shattering narratives of two damaged outsiders at Urbanite Theatre. They’ve been burned by racism, transphobia, sex abuse and an unhealthy dose of self-destruction. Bad things happen to good people, but that’s not the point.
Symons’ play is a parable of storytelling and personal loyalty. Stories matter, even the sad ones, but only if they’re told. That’s the point.
It’s all about the importance of story. But I can’t really talk about the story without giving the story away. If spoilers make you grind your teeth, feel free to skip my relentless analysis.
If not, here’s the story …
Once upon a time, there were two African-American children, little Nell (Minka Wiltz) and her older brother, True. They lived happily with a single mother. After she died, they lived unhappily with their abusive uncle. The kids finally ran away. Their bodies were safe but their souls were damaged. Many years later, True encountered his abuser in a diner and shot him. He went to prison for life. After that, Nell had a new mission in life — telling True’s story.
Once upon a time, a white, transgender girl named Amy (Alexia Jasmene) lived happily with her single mother — who agreed to appear with her child on a reality TV show. The producers paid for Amy’s partial sexual reassignment. But Amy and her mother became public figures and targets of loathing. One day, her mother took too many pills and died. Maybe an accident, maybe not.
As the play opens, Nell is holed up in a cheap motel room in Florida. Through years of intermittent homelessness, she’s been writing obsessively on scraps of notebook paper and bits of old grocery bags. Now, she’s succeeded in typing her manuscript into a stolen laptop computer. Once she uploads it to Kindle, True’s story will finally be told.
But Nell has to hurry. She’s dying of cirrhosis of the liver and running out of time.
So, she pays a self-publishing, e-book firm to finish the job. By sheer coincidence, her contact has a personal connection. That person is Amy, of course.
Who makes a surprise visit to Nell’s motel room. At about the same time a hurricane arrives.
That’s not the whole story. But you can see where it’s going.
Nell and Amy butt heads. The storm rages. The power goes on and off. When she can, Amy works away at the laptop. When she can’t work, she wrangles with Nell some more. Their sad stories slowly emerge in fragments. Dark tales. But lit up with flashes of rude hilarity.
Daniel Kelly directs Symons’ stormy play with raw authenticity. He takes a you-are-there, documentary approach. No magical realism. No artsy cuteness. Just honesty.
Wiltz delivers a powerful performance as Nell, a driven woman, suspicious, bitter and brilliant. She quotes long stretches of T.S. Eliot from memory and doesn’t miss a thing. It’s a searing portrait of a former child prodigy who could’ve been a contender in a better world. Jasmene (a transgender actor in real life) creates an equally heartbreaking portrayal of Amy. Her character’s not comfortable in her own skin; Amy’s self-image constantly flips from shame to tentative assertions of identity. The performance feels very real.
The action unfolds in the mildewed entropy of motel hell. Jeff Weber’s lovingly detailed set and Becki Leigh’s lived-in costumes bring this slice of Florida rot to life. Joseph Reynolds’ simulated storm is also electrifying.
The storm track of the play stirs up powerful emotions. But it feels like something’s missing.
Conflict. Aside from bad memories, inner conflict and squabbling, there isn’t any. Nell has already written True’s story. All she has to do is upload it. Or have Amy do it.
Ah, but if the story still had a gap, finishing it would be an artistic struggle, not merely a technical exercise. Amy could supply the missing puzzle piece …
But maybe that’s too neat.
And maybe what’s missing is what matters.
Symons’ gutsy play deals with loss, absence and silence. True is the heart of her play — and he’s gone. He’s the man who wasn’t there.
Yes, after a long, hard struggle, Nell finally tells her brother’s story. It’s the tale of the life True lived. But it’s no substitute for the life he could’ve lived.
That story must remain untold.
IF YOU GO
“Naming True” runs through July 2, at Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Call 321-1397 or visit urbanitetheatre.com for more information.