When Safiya Martinez lopes onto the Marsh stage in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers — with a disarmingly wide, toothy smile, her black hair slicked smoothly back — her personal charisma is apparent.
But what makes her solo autobiographical show, "So You Can Hear Me," so impressive is how fully she embodies her handful of characters.
In relating her experiences at age 23, teaching special ed in middle school in the South Bronx, N.Y., Martinez uses every element of the actor's craft — physical and facial expression, accents, vocal idiosyncrasies — plus a hat here, a wig or a hoodie there, to transform herself into students, a teacher, a friend and a few others.
She grew up in the New York projects, daughter of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, both struggling countercultural artists themselves.
But that did not prepare her for teaching at an inner-city school where a severed head was once found in a trash can, where the principal is sociopathic and where kids normally show up for class late, high and defiant, even violent.
"Everybody knew I was falling apart," she tells us. The kids cuss her out, blatantly challenge her. She confides in friends and colleagues, but they either give her unhelpful advice or talk about themselves.
She ends up simply walking into a tall locker and standing there miserably, at a complete loss.
Martinez is such a skilled actor, and is so well directed by David Ford, that her writing suffers by comparison, not in the often hilarious authenticity of the rapid-fire dialogue, but in the overall meat of the piece.
The individual stories, — of her struggle, and of the struggles of the other characters – entertaining and touching as they are, don't coalesce into a substantial narrative.
Yet the stories do resonate. Martinez, loose-limbed, graceful and rubbery-faced, finds the heart in each of the lost souls she inhabits, and reveals that heart with precision and simplicity.
Sammy, a smart-ass kid in a wheelchair who harasses his aide, is heart-breaking just in the way that he throws back his head and laughs — a brittle, desperate cackle.
Even scarily rageful Jose seems vulnerable.
There's something transcendent about Martinez's depiction of these troubled kids, and in the play's wistful ending. We're left hoping to see lots more of this alluring performer.REVIEW
So You Can Hear Me
Presented by The Marsh
Where: 1062 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 20
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org