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A friend who turned down my invitation to see The Gimmick, one of two one-woman plays currently being produced by Arena Stage, said later, “It sounded really depressing. Was it?” Notwithstanding that the broken-homed Harlem heroine’s childhood best friend dies, and that her dream of being a writer means she’ll probably be proofing legal documents or bussing tables in the Village three years hence, and that there will still be poverty and racism and addiction and prejudice against plus-size women when you walk out onto 14th and T, this evening at Living Stage won’t send you home unhappy. I haven’t spoiled any plot points; when The Gimmick begins, a voice-over reading a letter from someone called Miss Innes reveals that “your friend Jimmy” is dead. The whodunit in this production involves who Miss Innes and Jimmy and the letter’s addressee, Alexis, are, and what they have done to—and for—each other. Even though Alexis is in love with—indeed, is ultimately saved by—her love of language, Dael Orlandersmith’s script, essentially an extended monologue, seldom sings and sometimes even plods when it attempts to be poetic. But its depth is in its subtleties: the recognition that poverty is a noisy, filthy state; the disparity between what one says and what one feels; the capacity for parents to succumb to narcissistic tyranny. And its artistry is in the kinetic poetry of Kashi-Tara as Alexis. Lithe and muscled (and far too compact to be fully believable as a size-16 teenager—you wonder whether the grown-up Alexis has gone for the Zone or the veggie-no-cheese at Subway), Kashi-Tara never fails to embody Alexis, and her dancer’s focus keeps us riveted to every movement, whether she’s surfing in emulation of the kids on American Bandstand, swaggering downtown as a teenager with a conquistador’s command of virgin territory, or opening her blouse to model for her unseen painter friend. It’s Kashi-Tara’s tour de force: She grabs the script and runs with it, and the crew wisely stays out of the way. But it’s to the credit of that crew, and director Ralph Remington, that they can disappear so fully, leaving the audience seemingly alone with one not-so-extraordinary woman telling a familiar tale of rising up, and still give the sense that something special has occurred. —Pamela Murray Winters