“I’ll be frank with you, I really don’t have anything,” said Erykah Badu as she walked barefoot onto the stage in the Naomi Bruton Theater downtown Thursday night for the first of three performances of her new one-woman show, Live Nudity. She was only slightly exaggerating. Badu had a few things, just not enough to call what she did a fully satisfying evening of live solo theater starring a four-time Grammy winner. For too much of the hour and 45-minute show, it was, as Badu admitted to the audience, “just me making this shit up right now.”
Badu’s hometown launch of Live Nudity is part of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters “dress performance series.” And it felt in many ways like a sloppy dress rehearsal for something that might turn into something better later on. Like after Badu actually writes a script that makes some sense and gets a director who can tell her what does and doesn’t work. (She lists herself in the program as director, musical director and costume-makeup-lighting designer.)
Mostly Badu needs to figure out exactly what she’s trying to say in this piece. What she did Thursday night was a hodgepodge of improvised solo sketch comedy (and not for a moment was that a good idea … Badu is not Whoopi Goldberg), intimate musical lounge act (loved that) and … puppet show?
Yes, Badu dons sock puppets and, using a Rosie Perez accent, has her cotton-clad fists get into a domestic squabble that devolves into repetitions of “fuckin’ shit” until you wish one of the puppets would actually sock the other sock and knock it out. Another bit that goes stale puts Badu center stage slowly eating a bag of potato chips. That’s it. Crunch, crunch, crunch into the mic.
Divided into 13 brief “scenes,” Live Nudity (no nudity, by the way) is, says Badu to the crowd, her way “as an artist … to be in control of my inconsistencies.” She’s got the inconsistent part down. Not comfortable nor especially gifted at doing broad comedy, at least not on Thursday night, she appeared to relax only when she stood behind an old-fashioned microphone and sang. That she does three times in her show and, in those moments, Badu’s considerable star power really turns on the high beams.
Singing a whimsical quasi-French number and a couple of Billie Holiday-infused bluesy jazz songs, Badu was in her element. Her “neo-soul” voice, of course, is heavenly, with its tough vibrato, gently caressed vowels and Holiday growls. (She’s backed up by a live trio stationed offstage: R.C. Williams on keyboards, Braylon Lacy on bass, Cleon Edwards on drums.)
Badu, 44, seems to be on more of a musically creative streak than a theatrical one. In early October, she dropped "Hotline Bling But U Caint Use My Phone," her remix (co-written with her son, Seven Benjamin) of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Next week she releases her first new album (she calls it a “mixtape”) since 2010. She’ll host the Soul Train Awards November 29 on BET.
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There are a couple of moments in Live Nudity that hint at what Badu the solo actor and comedian might be capable of if she wrote, rewrote and polished a script, rehearsed it thoroughly, worked with a good director and added some touches of showbiz glam. (She wore ripped overalls and no makeup at Thursday night’s performance. Viewed from the mezzanine in the 1,750-seat auditorium, Badu’s tiny face disappeared under her heavy mountain of hair.) She could, if she wanted to, build Live Nudity into a genuinely autobiographical musical theater piece, along the lines of Bette Midler’s hit Broadway show Divine Madness or the Tony-winning monologues-with-music performed by the late Lena Horne and Elaine Stritch.
In one improvised monologue in Live Nudity on Thursday, Badu did reveal some comic potential playing an unctuous New Age motivational speaker explaining chakras and forcing audience participation before comically dubbing patrons “pedophiles” and “thieves.” She’s onto some funny source material there.
And at the end of the show, lolling in a bathtub under a blue spotlight, she turned personal and serious, going into an almost trancelike state as she delivered an emotional speech about racism. “I’m trying to figure out if there is a place on the planet where it’s OK to be black,” she mused. In that statement alone lies the idea for a great piece of theater.
Erykah Badu Live Nudity continues at 8 p.m. through October 31 on the Naomi Bruton Stage at The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, 650 S. Griffin St. Tickets $40-$100 at 214- 743-2400 or through Ticketmaster.