In the very first moments of Charly Evan Simpson’s new play Form of a Girl Unknown, 12-year-old Amali (Amanda Morris) explains directly to the audience that she’s getting her first period. The scene might inspire empathetic pangs of recognition for any audience member with a vagina. Amali’s response, however, is anything but typical.
What: Form of a Girl Unknown
When: Oct. 16 – Nov. 17
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company Upstairs Theater
How: Tickets start at $32 and are available here.
Amali reacts to her first period not with embarrassment and dread, but with curiosity. Though she immediately recoils from her mother (a quietly affecting Latoya Cameron,) to both the audience and her best friend Finn (Bradley Hatch,) she is endlessly fascinated. Though all of the period-talk makes Finn queasy, Amari can’t help herself — her observations come out in an uncontrollable flow. (I’m sorry.)
These unexpected reactions are everywhere in Form of a Girl Unknown, which takes familiar coming-of-age tropes and twists them into something wholly unique. Amali is a brainy but awkward adolescent — she whizzes through Shakespeare plays but only spends time with Finn after a fight with her ex-best-friend Marina (Daisy Allred). At home, Amali feels misunderstood by her overworked mother and perpetually eye-rolling older sister Charise (Aalliyah Ann). As Amali’s life gets more confusing, she becomes fascinated by two dead children whose bodies were found in the woods, developing an obsession that begins to alarm the people around her.
In the past few years, a new wave of films and TV shows, including Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, Pen15 and Big Mouth, have reframed narratives about teenage girls, telling stories with emotional candor and sexual frankness. Like these projects, Form of a Girl Unknown is a very funny story that takes its characters seriously. Amali, in all her idiosyncrasies, defies stereotypical portrayals of black girls in pop culture, and the play treats her larger-than-life emotions with compassion and complexity.
As Amali, Morris effectively anchors the play. Normally, I have an allergic reaction to adult actors playing children, but Morris is completely convincing in the role — fifteen minutes in, you’ll forget that you’re not watching an actual 12-year-old. The creative team is equally effective. Director Melissa Crespo’s fluid staging complements Amari’s irrepressible energy, and Shoko Kambara’s clever set constantly contracts and expands into cramped bathrooms and vast forests.
Form of a Girl Unknown is so breezy and funny, you almost don’t notice the big ideas it subtly tackles, like poverty, mental illness and queer identity. You probably didn’t grow up exactly like Amari. But if you grew up at all, you will find something to relate to in this winning play.
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