Nilaja Sun plays a whole neighbourhood in Pike St.: Jewish octogenarians and Puerto Rican Navy Seals, Yemeni storekeepers and Latino lingerie fans. This poor part of Lower East Side has long been Manhattan’s immigrant district. Racial tensions ricochet round the block. A hurricane’s moving in.
Sun’s a born shapeshifter, and her off-Broadway solos have won her truckloads of fans. This one, which premiered three years after Sandy ripped through New York, centres on a Puerto Rican family cramped into a fifth-floor tenement flat. With power likely to blow, Evelyn’s trying to get a generator going to keep her disabled daughter Candi’s dialysis machine working. Her lusty father’s forgotten his lotto ticket, and her brother Manni just got back from war, wound tight with PTSD.
Tucked beneath the surface, Pike St.’s a play about pressure. It’s not just the storm brewing, it’s the tiny tensions between neighbours and family members. It’s Evelyn trying to ensure the right energy, good vibrations, for the sake of her child’s health. It’s the front line memories rattling round Manni’s head. Something, ultimately, has to give.
If Sun’s pop, when it comes, pushes too far, her performance is pinpoint – a virtuosic, write-the-theme-tune, sing-the-theme-tune display. She embodies this community as if she contains it, each person distinct, each idiosyncratic. True, they tend towards tropes—the randy goat granddad and the wounded New Ager—but the clarity and constancy of her characterisation, the speed of transition, is remarkable. A one-woman cultural melting pot.