The old saw about pictures and words is turned on its head in Sasha Sinclair’s “Self Portrait,” 75 minutes of words unspooling the personal family hopes and history behind an attempt to capture her own likeness on canvas.
“When you paint yourself, you remember things you thought you forgot.” That maxim guides Sinclair’s one-woman show, which takes her back to a childhood in southern Virginia, her creative ambitions stifled by proud and fearful grandparents and stoked by a glamorous great-aunt. She escapes to Washington, “where I became an artist” and found an audience. Then, pulled back South to care for her ailing grandmother, she doubles back to reveal the secrets she’s uncovered. That her severe grandfather, who ordered her not to socialize with the white kids at her all-white private school, was nearly killed in a lynching. That her grandmother saved all of Sinclair’s drawings even while hitting her and calling her fat. That her “nerdy ginger” boyfriend was really the first of many gay male friends.
It’s a lot to unpack. Changes of time and place are sometimes abrupt, and characters are submerged as soon as they appear. Sinclair tries to cram in so much that several years are relegated to PowerPoint slides, teasing stories left untouched, summarizing her whole college career and a series of apartment evictions. Some of her sly asides — a description of a “country ghetto fabulous nurse” who can’t stop shouting and a “hate fairy” roommate — are more finely tuned than the serious moments she labors over. But those sparkling bon mots are also why it’s a joy just to listen to Sinclair talk, even if she sometimes rambles.
The rough edges are smoothed over by song, the strongest weapon in Sinclair’s storytelling arsenal and compelling evidence that she is the diva she set out to become. At show’s end, when she finally revealed her painted self-portrait, an audience member at Sunday’s performance exclaimed, “Oh, it’s beautiful.” She wasn’t wrong.
By Sasha Sinclair. Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday at 10 p.m., at the Gearbox at 1021 Seventh St. NW. About 75 minutes. Tickets are $17 with a Fringe button and can be purchased online.