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Essay

From the Artistic Director: If Pretty Hurts...

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
December 4, 2018

Pretty hurts
Shine the light on whatever’s worse
Perfection is the disease of a nation
Tryna fix something
But you can’t fix what you can’t see
It’s the soul that needs the surgery.
Beyoncé, “Pretty Hurts

There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual…
August Wilson, Fences (stage direction)

Tori says that the first play she ever saw was August Wilson’s Fences when she was a 22-year-old sociology major. The impact was so profound that she went home and began to write a play. This prompted me to revisit Fences, a play I remember as being steeped in social realism, much different in tone from the immersive playfulness of Tori’s play. But reading it again, I realized my memory did not do justice to the poetry and exaltation of Wilson’s play, and that the outsized heart and yearning for transfiguration of Tori’s play owes a debt to Wilson.

I need to confess something. Soon after reading If Pretty Hurts..., my staff started talking about the ways it was in conversation with Beyoncé’s song, “Pretty Hurts.” I’d never heard it. So I hopped on YouTube and watched the video. On the most fundamental level, the song offers a critique of the beauty industry and the sense of judgment and competition young women grow up feeling. And for young African American women that pervasive sense of judgment is even keener. But I felt other levels to the video. There’s a certain deep, nuanced irony to having the song’s sentiments about the pressures to be beautiful voiced by a woman as indisputably beautiful as Beyoncé. But that’s part of the video’s genius. It shows us that the verb in “pretty hurts” is both transitive and intransitive. Objectification takes its toll on the inside and the outside. 

If Pretty Hurts... tells the story of Akim, held up as the most beautiful girl in her African village her entire life, and the other girls who are envious of her. Setting the theme and the story within this framework underlines the archetypal aspects of the characters. But it also frees Tori aesthetically. She brings music and dance and the light touch of her folkloric inspiration, but feels free to imbue it with contemporary references and language. This hybrid approach ensures that the play feels as much like an exploration of Africanness and the Diaspora as an exploration of her theme. It teems with spirit, smarts, and mischief. I’ve never read anything like it. And I’m excited to share it with you.