In the home where Giovanni Adams grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, sex was never a dirty word. After all, his mother worked with the youth population and often brought home t-shirts warning against the dangers of chlamydia as souvenirs of sorts for her sons. But the concept of love was approached in a different way entirely. In Love is a Dirty Word, Adams’s world premiere, autobiographical solo show currently playing at the VS. Theatre in Los Angeles, he takes a deep, honest, stirring dive into his personal journey of self acceptance.
Directed by Becca Wolff, Adams wrote this highly personal piece and performs it alone, with musical accompaniment by guitarist Arturo Lopez. The set (Rachel Myers) is detailed, intimate, and homey and no inch of it is without meaning, consisting of a mishmash of lived-in furniture and framed family photos, with plot-relevant details such as a pile of dirt towards the front of the stage adding intrigue. Adams describes growing up as a black, gay Christian and reconciling all of these parts of his identity with his own expectations and notions of self-worth, most of which were deeply ingrained as a result of his experiences as a young boy. He was only a child when his father went to prison, proclaiming him the new “man of the house” in his parting words, a responsibility that deeply affected Adams as he grew up with his mother, brother, and grandmother. Eventually, he established a deep bond with a stepfather that also ended in tragedy. After growing up in the south, Adams went to Yale for undergrad, where he was the coxswain on the rowing team, responsible for sitting in the stern of the boat, steering and calling out commands. He then, of course, followed his dreams to Hollywood.
Adams delivers his dialogue a mile a minute, with an effervescent fervor you cannot help but be captivated by. He makes frequent eye contact with those in the first rows, as if he is simply telling friends a story. And it is a very carefully, thoughtfully written story. The vivid, colorful descriptions immediately transport you to his grandmother’s house, his childhood home, or even a rowing boat in a regatta. You feel as if you know and understand not only him, but the other people in his life he describes, particularly his family members. The early parts of his story are the most dynamic and memorable. Even though they should be comparatively less fresh in his mind, you can tell these formative memories live on in technicolor, and they leap off the stage, larger than life in his retelling.
The show also features three strong original songs, composed by Adams and arranged by Lopez. They are beautifully performed and seamlessly woven into the piece, never forced. It helps that music is a powerful theme throughout Adams’s life—the set features a record player, and he frequently references popular songs or church hymns that correspond to specific memories.
Race, sexuality, and religion are the three tentpoles of Adams’s journey. He describes being baptized relatively late in life, his first sexual experience, and finding his place in the world with a great deal of honesty and scrutiny, not holding back even when the events being described are difficult or emotional. A recurring theme is his obsession with cleanliness, as it pertains to both meticulous personal grooming rituals and his living spaces, always in hopes it would prevent people from seeing how much the world has broken him. Many of his anecdotes are specific and yet universal, such as his description of the unwelcoming, plastic-covered furniture in older relatives’ homes or his disappointment when explaining his family’s absence at important college events. You can tell how meaningful this piece is to Adams, and he delivers not only a fine piece of writing that is funny and heartbreaking all at the same time, but also a career-making performance that oozes with passion. Ultimately, Love is a Dirty Word is a smartly conceived, effective solo show that provides a familiar yet refreshing window to the soul of the artist behind it.
Love is a Dirty Word runs at the VS. Theatre in Los Angeles through July 15th. The running time is 80 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.