You might think that Kyle Abraham can't be Gepetto's son, not in the traditional sense. After all, he's a gay African-American choreographer. But when it comes to the human values underneath whatever skin (or wooden veneer) we happen to possess, it turns out that we tend to share a lot more than we would like to admit.
Pinocchio, as most of us know, probably from the vintage Disney cartoon, is an Italian puppet who yearns to be a real boy. As it turned out in a fascinating and sometimes painful world premiere at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Mr. Abraham proved to be a puppet master of another sort in his reinvention of the classic tale.
Only now it's the cleverly-titled "Live! The Realest MC."
Mr. Abraham's MC didn't have a Gepetto, but he did have his bullies in this street-smart search by a real boy for his true identity. And "Live!" didn't unveil a traditional narrative during its hour-long time frame, but instead offered MC's emotionally charged trajectory.
It began with a scratching sound score, more like train or factory noise with an underlying heartbeat. Mr. Abraham was writhing on the floor, an embryonic figure in a sequined shirt.
He began to make his way upright -- hesitatingly, awkwardly -- a pigeon-toed, solitary figure taking in the world. Only his eyes seemed unorthodox, as if wooden or hooded. He was indeed a puppet with a dash of James Brown.
Three dancers entered, dressed in black track suits with glittery stripes down the sleeves and pants. Like the Pips, they provided a social surround, this one childish, where MC was perceived as shy and sensitive. The four paired off and held hands. MC had a boy next to him and was surprisingly glad about that. But the others looked askance at him in one of the breathtakingly intimate moments of the production, so simple but so effective..
There was a duo with another man where MC's eyes were still hooded, trying to hide his feelings.
He disappeared as the other dancers began to command the stage, although it was unclear what stories they had to tell. While Mr. Abraham has become more sophisticated in manipulating their solos and group movements, this segment didn't pull its dramatic weight.
We became aware of the scenic design, much like giant vertical blinds that periodically flipped. Large green spots of light provided cloistered cells for the dance.
But it was also becoming apparent that this was a dance on the dark side, although not without flecks of humor. Despite an unraveling and rewrapping male trio ("I'm just trying to talk to you...") with Chalvar Monteiro and Maleek Malaki Washington, and some sweet gender bending, we still weren't prepared for Mr. Abraham's powerful turn at the mike, where he exposed his own emotional core.
He spewed a raw, unadulterated truth about bullies. Trembling. "He hit me!" Sobbing. "They held me down!"
But it wiped the slate clean and the stage was warmed by orange light. MC seemed more comfortable in his own skin. We had lingering glimpses of the pigeon-toes and the bravado that hides so many insecurities.
In the end, it made you wonder, though, about Rutgers student Tyler Clementi and 13-year old Vermont student Ryan Halligan, who both committed suicide after bullying and whose stories infused this production. And it made you grateful that Mr. Abraham was still around to share his story, a happy ending in itself.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: firstname.lastname@example.org .