Sisyphus had his rock. Actor and performer Khanisha Foster has her identity.
The daughter of a white grocery store heiress and a Black Panther, Foster identifies as white and black. Try telling that to the people she meets, especially in her profession. Agents, directors and casting directors see her as Latina. And one who is best fit to play, in her words, “maids, lesbians and disabled lesbian maids.”
She sees the burden as theirs, not hers, but nonetheless they have foisted their worldview on her. It has affected her career and her state of mind in myriad ways. Defiantly and in good spirits, she fights with the perceptions and the consequences.
A Los Angeles-based writer, director and performer, Foster shares all of this and much more in “Joy Rebel,” a wry solo show whose premiere concludes the Claude Purdy Festival at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
Working under the minimalist direction of Lou Bellamy and using only a chair for a prop on an otherwise bare stage, Foster evokes periods of her life. She assumes voices and cadences to limn her characters. There’s the squeaky scared youngster who tries to hide the TV from a fresh-out-of-jail father bent on pawning it to feed his drug habit. There’s the determined adult auditioning for people who don’t believe she’s who she says she is. There’s the surprisingly tremulous daughter holding it together as she says goodbye to a parent.
“Joy Rebel” is by turns risible and heartbreaking. But this is no pity party. With impeccable timing, Foster is mostly dispassionate as she tells her story. In fact, there are more moments of humor than pathos. How else to deal with the complicated history from which she springs?
Both of her parents were heroin addicts. Her father lost his way when the lives of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were snuffed out in 1968. Her mother also sought escape.
In truth, Foster seems to regard her background as a blessing. It’s the source of so many stories, after all. And even as she mines it for material, it becomes a vehicle for her to do something that the world, with its boxes and binary divisions, stubbornly refuses to let her do — define herself. In this show, she gets to hold up a mirror so people can see their imaginative limitations and, perhaps, gain the freedom she craves.
A one-person show can come off as a showcase for the performer. After all, the actor must use many different tools to keep an audience riveted. Foster uses a battery of accents. She dances like Beyoncé. But this does not feel like a showpiece or an audition. Rather, it’s something she’s compelled to share.
In the outside world, people may be taken aback when she asserts her dual identities. But in this poetic stage memoir, she holds on to both sides of her heritage, even if neither side of her family reciprocates with the passion she demonstrates in embracing them.
Perhaps if they come see her at Penumbra they will. Onstage, at least, Foster is shifting that weight.
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Who: Written and performed by Khanisha Foster. Directed by Lou Bellamy.
Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $15-$25. 651-224-3180 or penumbratheatre.org.