It was with some apprehension that I took my seat at Jaradoa Theatre Company’s Shafrika, the White Girl. “Why is that?” you may ask.  “Well,” I would reply, “if your goal was to write a musical whereby the same joke is played out over the course of two hours, what could that musical be called?”

You get my point.  Shafrika, the White Girl is about a white girl (obviously) growing up in a family with nine adopted siblings of various ethnic backgrounds.  The show’s marketing included various You Tube clips of Shafrika wearing fur and bling, surrounded by a similarly-dressed, but conspicously ethnic entourage.  I assumed the white girl would be the brunt of a lot of jokes due to her own inasupiciousness, blah, blah, blah.  Let’s all make fun of white girls.  They never stick up for themselves anyway.

It turns out that Shafrika, the White Girl is a true story about actress Anika Larsen, who did indeed grow up in a family of ten (or more?  I lost count)  children of various colors of the rainbow, along with a few blood-related siblings thrown in for good measure.  Your enjoyment of the musical is directly related to how well you know/care about Anika Larsen.  My relationship with Anika is primarily jealousy.  I don’t actually know her, but she flits from Broadway show to Broadway show, prompting many an envious eye roll from me whenever I see her name on Playbill.  It’s too bad I’m so insecure because after watching this really very brave musical about her life, I feel like I know her very well and that we would be good friends if we actually met.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking.  ‘This girl got a hold of the Vineyard Theatre to put on a musical about herself?  What’s more egotistical than that?’  The answer would be, “Well, nothing,” except that Larsen is very clever about the whole thing, which is one of the reasons I started to like her.  The opening number, which ingeniously parodied a hip-hop video, showcased her talented ensemble dancers (the “Sh-freaks”) and singers (the “Sh-chorus.”)  I noticed that without meaning to, I was enjoying myself.  Then Larsen takes center stage and right away breaks the fourth wall to introduce the show’s dramatic question, if you will.  (Hello, freshman-level Fundamentals of Drama.)  She grew up in such a multi-cultural family that she doesn’t feel “white.”  She doesn’t identify with any racial group in fact, but rather than take the opportunity to sing a cheesy, soaring pop ballad at this point, which is what any formulaic musical would have done, she begins to act out the story of her family– as a one-woman show.

The Sh-chorus, who up to this point have been lining the back wall like a Benetton ad, decide to “intervene.”  “Let so-and-so play your mom,” they advise her. ( I didn’t get a program.  I don’t know these actors’ names.  C’est la vie.)  “But it’s my show,” she protests.  “Oh, but so-and-so does a great Your Mom.  You should see it,” they explain.  She reluctantly passes the reins to so-and-so, and wouldn’t you know, the usher jumps up to say he’s really been working on Anika’s Dad, and the show gallops along, leaving her in the dust.  It’s blatantly theatrical and a touch contrived, but clever.   It allows the show to be about Anika and her family, but really allows the supporting cast to shine in their roles as family members.  Anika is left to play herself, and naturally, she’s very good.

The show itself is not without its bumps.  Some devices work very well, such as the slam poetry Larsen incorporates to to express the confusion and anger she feels when confronted with her first racist joke.  Others do not fare so well, such as the R&B operetta that tells the story of meeting her first (black) boyfriend at Yale.  Much like Trapped in the Closet, it takes itself a little too seriously and begins to be, frankly, boring.  Throughout the show Larsen speaks directly to the audience, with the Sh-chorus interrupting to suggest “improvements” time and time again, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

However, her story is intriguing.  (I do wish she had addressed what her parents did for a living to support such a large family.)  The first act is stock full of warm and fuzzy childhood memories, while in the second act the family begins to unravel as the children grow up and are faced with a world that isn’t as hippie-happy as they were raised to believe.  That, compounded with inevitable frustrations I imagine would come from adoption, cause them to act out in various, sometimes hurtful, ways. A million things happen, and despite the best intentions of the Sh-chorus, Anika is no closer to uncovering her true racial identity at the end than she was at the beginning.   I don’t want to give away how the show resolves, but kudos to Larsen for really taking the  audience on a journey with her, and even though at the end of the show everyone sings We Shall Overcome in different languages (and if that isn’t the most hippy-dippy ending ever conceived, I don’t know what is), Scenery Chewer did in fact find herself blinking back tears.

Being in an interracial relationship myself, I understand how race is never an issue, and yet always an issue.  That may not make sense to you if you’ve not experienced a situation where race is this major white elephant.  How else to describe it?  Pretending race doesn’t matter does not allow a child– or ten of them– to uncover how one’s roots do matter.  Shafrika asks what in a person is due nurture (or society) and what is due to nature, such as a predisposition to violence or alcoholism, or in a good sense, a proclivity to music or ministry.

Shafrika deals with some very important issues and in it Anika Larsen asks herself and the audience some very difficult questions.  It is a work of merit, but it does have a bit of a labor-of-love feel to it.  I think the story could be improved if it were simply about the family, but retaining Anika’s point of view.  It could be like the Diary of Anne Frank, for example, which is about the Frank family, although Anne is obviously the narrator.  Clearly in that case it would need a new title.  But it could use one that stands up to her story, and one that doesn’t cause pathetic, insecure theatregoers to lower their expectations.