There are two types of powerful books. There are those with weight, carried around for weeks, a physical labor of intellectual love. These end in catharsis, followed by a twinge of sadness. And then, there is the rare 80-page wonder that is Virginia Grise’s blu, a play that reads in under an hour and stays with the reader or audience for weeks.
The story is centered on Blu, the title character of this modern day tragedy who enlists in the army and is killed in Iraq, sending his untraditional Chicano family into a spiral of mythologies, memories, and the harsh realities of the streets of LA. Six characters elevate this too real narrative to magical realism, allowing topics like prison and gangs to achieve a rare level of poeticism.
Grise is a master at the craft of playwriting, winning the Yale Drama Series Award, and selected as a finalist for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art’s Latino/a Playwriting Award and Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Award with blu. The play jumps through space and time, blurring the past and present. In this way, the tension building up to Blu’s enrollment and the aftermath of his death are portrayed in one level field. For Blu, living in the streets of LA, without the influence of his prison-bound father, is not much different from being at war; rather, it is the others that wither in his absence.
What truly makes this work unique is Grise’s use of repetition and choral arrangement of dialogue. Throughout the play, characters repeat the refrains of their family members, displaying the strength of their shared experience. At other times, two characters will be speaking in perfect unison, despite their physical separation. None of them can relinquish hopeful thoughts of escaping, whether from prison or from the streets. These moments are often drowned out by the sound of helicopters, or the gangs, or the harshness of the concrete, but one can still find some inspiration in the piece and in the common struggles of the characters.
Yet Grise’s elevated stage devices remain genuine. While the dialogue often reads like back-and-forth poetry, she manages to maintain a gritty realness in her manufactured, dreamlike world. The characters speak with broken grammar and the text is written all-lowercase and often misspelled. Original Spanish is interspersed throughout, no contextual clues, no apologies. And this authenticity allows two characters the ability to verbally process their struggles without coming across as contrived:
GEMINI: being brave ain’t no bulletproof vest. please
don’t tell me you don’t dream. sometimes the dreams,
the dreams is all we got, bro.
LUNATICO sometimes . . .
GEMINI sometimes . . .
LUNATICO sometimes i dream of leavin. city streets.
concrete. bangin. all of it. stop fightin. stop frontin. just
By combining the real and fantastical, Grise is able to create a world that is at once emotionally unbearable and also strangely beautiful.