IN DESCRIBING THE LOVERS OF Picasso's The Embrace, Alexis, the narrator of Dael Orlandersmith's The Gimmick, is also detailing the fierce harmony of her friendship with her best friend, Jimmy, a doomed painter. "They melt into each other," she observes, "and still there's chaos." Orlandersmith's one-woman show at ACT provides me with a second happy occasion to mention James Baldwin (after Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror at Intiman); Alexis is an aspiring writer who uses Baldwin as a touchstone. Unfolding against Scott Pask's black-and-white Rothko set, The Gimmick is a ghetto memory play that finds Baldwinesque glory even in defeat.

Orlandersmith makes the basic leap that is unfortunately so often missed in solo shows -- the personal is voiced so well that it becomes universal; it transcends its own limitations. Her descriptive eloquence is such that she does no disservice to herself by conjuring up Baldwin. She shares his rich ability to connect the outer world with an inner life, to smoothly commingle hurt and delight. "We wanted goodness to melt in us," she says of a hot day in childhood spent licking ice cream cones, and it's one of many days, people, and places that shimmers with her craft. At the rare moments when you fear her poetic rhythms may veer into pretense (am I the only person for whom "Nuyorican poet" is not necessarily a welcome recommendation?), Orlandersmith's adeptness with language and her soothing demeanor are a reassurance that everything has its purpose. There's a wholeness to the piece, and to Chris Coleman's observant direction, which allows for the rough spots.

What finally distinguishes the work is also its ultimate link to Baldwin (and, in fact, to Anna Deveare Smith): the triumphant celebration of language as a means to hold onto life, and at the same time, to challenge it. The furious yearnings expressed in The Gimmick, even with a certain genre familiarity, retain their power because Orlandersmith has led us through them with an unshakable confidence in her words. "There is darkness," a beloved librarian tells Alexis, keenly summing up the show as well, "but behind it there is beauty." THEATER

Support The Stranger