Playwright: Matt Sax. At: About Face at Lookingglass, 821 N. Michigan. Phone: 312-337-0665; $25-$30
Runs through: Nov. 19
Full disclosure time: I went into this co-production between Lookingglass and About Face with reservations. No, not seat reservations, silly! Serious reservations. I agreed only to review the show because it was Lookingglass and About Face behind it. Secretly, I was horrified that I would be sitting through a show billed as a 'one-man hip-hop musical.' I hate hip-hop. It makes me cringe.
Knowing that I went into this show with such a mindset makes the end result all the more delightful because this is one brilliant piece of work by a hugely talented performer and artist. ( Matt Sax is a very recent grad of Northwestern. ) I'm sure we'll be seeing more of the doe-eyed, rubber-faced, chameleonic Sax. If this opening salvo into the world of performing art is any indication, all of you should rush out right now and get your tickets to Clay so you can say you saw Sax in a 50-seat black box theater when he was just starting out. One day, your friends will be very impressed by your prescience, good taste and judgment.
Impressing friends aside, you should see Clay because it's simply a remarkable work of theater. Never mind that you don't like hip-hop; I don't and I still don't. The thing with Clay is your musical preference doesn't matter because Sax and director Eric Rosen use hip-hop as a lexicon to tell a very convincing and moving story about a young man's development as both a man and an artist. It is not about ( and the show even jokes about this ) hos, gangstas and diamonds. As we see Sax's alter ego, Clifford, grow from a little boy from a broken home to a hip-hop sensation, we share in universal and, paradoxically, unique growth pangs. Underneath it all, we can see how loss, dysfunction and exploitation can be both personal tragedies as well as springboards to creativity.
Sax commands the stage with a confidence and presence belied by his years. And even if the story he tells ( boy makes good after surviving broken home and parental combat and bitterness ) isn't anything new, Sax's way of telling it is. He's an assured, affable performer and quickly has you ( and even artistic curmudgeons like me ) seated comfortably in the palm of his hand. His final moment on stage, when he does a quick, pained and silent metamorphosis of all the characters he's portrayed ( mother, father, stepfather, mentor ) is breathtaking—the kind of single-stroke genius that literally moved me to tears not so much because of the poignancy behind it, but because of the sheer power of the artistry.