'Heart' review — Jade Anouka tells a moving story from the heart
It's a tale as old as time: An LGBT+ person realizes they're queer for the first time, and all the happiness that they feel toward finally discovering their true self (and perhaps toward an object of their affection that led to their revelation) gets crushed beneath insecurity, shame, and fear that their families or society will never see them the same way again. Countless people, including this critic, have lived this story. But just because it's a time-worn tale doesn't mean it's any less affecting to see Jade Anouka share it in her theatrical memoir Heart.
If you're familiar with the "bisexual lighting" internet phenomenon, you might see where the story is heading even without reading the plot summary. Lighting designer Jen Schriever makes plenty use of it, as does costume designer Emily Rebholz by dressing Anouka in a pinkish-purple and blue suit. Flashes of red and orange in Arnulfo Maldonado's set — the showpiece of which is a frilly curtain that evokes the can-can skirts in Moulin Rouge! — might throw you off for a second, but then again, the designs together cover most of the colors of the rainbow.
They also create a capital-T Theatrical world for Anouka to inhabit as she tells us her story: She was married to a seemingly wonderful man whose mental illness slowly took over, ultimately leading him to suddenly divorce her. She calls his illness his "beast," and in the wake of the breakup, she finds herself facing a "beast" of her own: a nagging feeling of inadequacy. "How can I be left mourning the perfect life?" Anouka asks in a moment where we know, through no fault of hers, life was anything but. "Guess I wasn't the perfect wife."
That dark tale contrasts with the visual effervescence of Heart, and deliberately so. As Anouka once put on the performance of a happy and perfect (and straight) woman, so, too, does she begin by performing that carefully curated character for us, a charisma bomb with the swagger of a ringmaster. Slowly and subtly, though, as she transitions into the next phase of her story — where she meets a woman that turns her heart upside down — that put-on charisma dissolves into giddiness and, when it returns, is genuine as she's acquired true confidence. And the bright rainbow of design around her is a powerful statement of self.
Of course, that romance isn't smooth sailing, either, as Anouka's initial inability to accept her sexuality nearly loses her the girl. She details both the highs and lows of this and her previous relationship with uniformly piercing spoken-word poetry, which sets Heart apart. Ultimately, as a show that will eventually be immortalized as an audio drama on Audible, it's the words that must deliver, and Anouka's clever and poignantly delivered rhymes indeed do.
In some ways, Heart will ultimately be better off in that medium; choreographer Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster's stylized movement sometimes toes the line between deliberately Theatrical and forced, and while the designs add to the experience of the show, its intended end is clear; Anouka has her podcast voice down pat. But whether you go see Heart in person or wait for the Audible release, it's worth a listen. As Anouka points out, we're still in a world where stories like hers need to be shared, for LGBT+ people to remind each other we're not alone, and remind non-allies that our hearts love and hurt and beat and bleed, just like theirs.
Photo credit: Jade Anouka in Heart. (Photo by Trévon James)
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