When Sonny Marie Lee stepped onto the stage of the Actors Temple Theatre as the eponymous The Bronx Babe I thought she was putting the audience on, acting the stereotypical, Noo Yawk accented girl telling her memories of a stressful period in her life that tested her mettle.
But, no, the woman who stood before us, the woman who both wrote and directed The Bronx Babe, was obviously unaware of her theatrical shortcomings as she blithely told tales of her early teen years in the racially charged Bronx of the 1970’s.
Lee’s story is divided between her love for her parents, particularly her dad whose picture graced the stage, and stories of her pugnacious school chums. She entered singing—badly—along to a recording of “Tears of a Clown,” wearing a denim jacket and tight denim-colored leggings, her hair in a too youthful ponytail.
If she felt herself costumed to appear the age she was during the 1970’s she failed. She wasn’t an adult looking back on her rather rotten salad days, but she was, in her performance and writing, trying to bring back the teenaged Sonny Marie. It didn’t work.
A program note indicated that she wrote The Bronx Babe to help her get through a grief-stricken period in her life when she lost her entire family: her Irish dad, her mom and her sister. Her memories of her middle school were rife with nonsensical violence and disgusting, knee-jerk racism. She began on a kind of racist note when she told the audience that after several bad birth experiences in Catholic hospitals, her mother had her in a “Jewish Hospital” in the Bronx.
After moving from Manhattan to the South Bronx her entire social life revolved around a coterie of friends, each with a different personality, religion, race: Evelyn, Brenda, Ling, Francesca, Roberta and others. They shared gossip and camaraderie and supported each other giving advice on sex and survival. And there was Gloria whose vagina was weaponized leading her to be called something not printable here.
She witnessed unprovoked attacks on a bus headed for school and formed an alliance with other girls who call themselves the Scorpions after their astrological signs.
Her first kiss came from Freddy who slobbered all over her, turning her off, at least temporarily.
Towards the end of the show Lee changed into a more demure outfit: a simple dress and heeled shoes, the kind of costume she should have been in from the beginning.
During several dance episodes she was joined by Bree Mendez, a pretty young lady who danced rings around Lee and stole the show from her with her natural charisma.
Lee made the mistake of directing herself. The result was a disorganized mess of repetitious stories of bloody fights in and around her middle school.
The sad thing is that there is a potent story under the surface of her awkwardly rendered tales. Maybe there isn’t A Bronx Tale there, but self-directing squandered the material that an adept director or dramaturg might have organized and deepened into a truly moving tale of surviving the challenges she faced.
The Bronx Babe (through November 13, 2021)
The Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets and information, visit http://www.thebronxbabe.godaddysites.com
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission