What is the cost of beauty, and why are so many willing to pay it? With beauty standards and expectations for Black women so ingrained in our society, is it even possible to push back against the status quo without becoming part of the problem?
Those are just some of the questions posed by Tori Sampson’s 2019 play “If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka.”
Based on a West African folktale, “If Pretty Hurts…” takes a hard look at how far people will go to achieve what society seems to hold most dear: beauty.
Sampson’s play takes place in the fictional village of Affreakah-Amirrorikah and features an all-Black cast, most of whom are women.
Seventeen-year-old Akim (Aleeya Davis), the most beautiful girl in the village, is a source of envy and objectification by her peers. Three other girls, Adama (Maya Owens), Massassi (Vanessa Robinson), and Kaya (Nonye Obichere) plot Akim’s downfall.
Meanwhile, the conceited and complacent Kasim (Eljae Roe) is smitten with Akim, much to the displeasure of her overbearing mother and father (Iesha Nyree andJacobi Howard).
By the end of the play, both the characters and the audience are left questioning if beauty truly is what everyone in the village has made it out to be.
With a twist on a Nigerian tale, “If Pretty Hurts” explores many themes that challenge the audience to reconsider the world they inhabit.
A bright and colorful set paired with humorous performances contrast with the play’s dark and sometimes horrifying mood to present views on beauty standards from an entirely Black perspective.
In an interview with Playwright Horizons, Sampson said she researched African folktales and parables, blending them with her experiences growing up watching Disney movies rooted in social conventions of beauty
By combining these experiences, Sampson asks question, what does it mean to be beautiful and Black and to want to embrace your body in a culture that does the opposite?
Sampson said in the Playwright Horizon’s interview that she hopes the play opens discussion on how beauty can be embraced without being detrimental.
Massassi, Kaya and Adama each respond to Akim’s status differently, but they plot to drown her in the River Juju for most of the play’s run time.
Massassi has the most jealousy and ire for Akim, especially once Akim becomes the object of desire for Kasim, the village flirt. Kasim’s interactions with Massassi are far more lustful and physical than those with Akim. With Akim, he’s more charming and playful.
Robinson, who plays Massassi, said the theme she thinks audiences should take away from the play is “comparison is the thief of joy.”
The portrayal of the two characters shows the difference between what it means for a Black woman to be considered “sexy” versus “beautiful.”
“I think a lot of us relate to Massassi,” said Owens. She emphasized Massassi’s “inner struggle” of not being seen as beautiful due to being compared to others.
Owens’ character, Adama, says she is more laid back than Massassi and Kaya. Unlike them, she is not as obsessed with bringing down Akim.
This also leads to Adama being drowned, an important change from the original folktale that only sees Akim drown.
This change from the folktale leads to an example of the value society places on beauty. There is more concern for Akim due to her status as the most beautiful girl in the village, while Adama is mostly forgotten.
Adama rejects the pressure to always stand for something as people often expect her to. For fear of being seen as the aggressive and angry Black woman. During the play’s climax, Adama turns against Kaya and Massassi to help Akim as she’s drowning.
Akim’s mother and father are overbearing and protective of her throughout the play. They repeatedly remind her how vulnerable she is and encourage her to maintain her beauty as much as possible.
As a result of this coddling, Akim becomes very sheltered and ostracized from the outside world. This leads to her not knowing the price to be paid when crossing the River Juju later in the play.
Akim’s sheltered upbringing is as understandable as it is detrimental.
Nyree, who plays Akim’s mother, said she could relate to Akim and her mother. She said how her own parents used to tell her that she was too naive and needed to be protected; however, as a mother, Nyree also knows the importance of protecting one’s child from a societal structure that is “nonsense.”
“How do I protect my child from it? Because I’m not going to dismantle it,” said Nyree.
Although the minority, the actions and decisions of the male characters still impact the story’s trajectory. Assistant Director Tina Kelly said the male characters are symbols of the structure the other characters are trying to change.
“I’m definitely a villain in the play,” said Roe, who plays Kasim. “I’m exactly what they don’t want to see in a man.”
Despite his desire for Akim, Kasim frequently objectifies Massassi for her body while simultaneously comparing her to Akim.
Kasim upholds the structure of beauty standards as he constantly praises Akim and degrades the other girls, effectively pitting them against each other.
The other male role in the play is Akim’s father. Howard said he could see a lot of his own father in the character he played, especially having grown up with a sister.
Howard said that while Father Chagu was overbearing, he was right to be so overprotective of Akim because the world is cruel.
“I think there’s still room for a protective father figure, but there’s also room for him to check some of his boundaries when it concerns his children,” said Howard.
Director Sidney Horton, who grew up in the 70s, shares a similar experience to Howard. Horton was one of five children, four boys, and one girl. While his sister was the eldest of his siblings, Horton said she was also the most protected because she was a woman.
“If Pretty Hurts” leaves its audience to ponder its theme of the relationship between self-definition and social pressures while also sending a clear message that while society places a lot of value on beauty, it also burdens it. And if beauty carries a burden, ugly carries it tenfold.
If you go
Dates: Through Aug. 20
Place: 2132 Radcliffe Ave, Charlotte, NC 28207
Runtime: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission