"I'll be frank with you. I really don't have anything."
That's one of the ways Erykah Badu welcomed the audience to Live Nudity, her "one human" show Thursday night at the Naomi Bruton stage. The show, which runs through Saturday, is part of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Season 39 Dress Performance Theatre and Music Series.
The title of her show was more than a sly nod to her infamous 2010 video shoot for "Window Seat" in which she divested herself of clothing in downtown Dallas. It could have also been a nod to the raw nature of the material. Maybe it was simply the bare staging, in which she moved from chair to another chair of a different style to talk it out. Or maybe it's just a gimmick, albeit the well-thought-out one of a master planner. Was she nude? Well, kinda, sorta and maybe.
It could have been a nod to her laying bare her head space. Apparently, that's where the clutter lives. Perhaps this is why she's driven to create, to get it all out. There are things living and breathing in there and singing is only part of that. She's the reason improv was invented.
She even said, "I can be all things."
She set out to prove that in a technical sense, showing up at the sound board, directing the staging, saying "fade to black" to end each vignette. Officially, she was listed with six titles on the program for the two-act show with a 15-minute intermission. She was director, musical director, co-lighting designer, costume designer, makeup and hair and sound design. As the show went on, the other names seemed almost a courtesy.
She even served as her own announcer, warning of the consequences of taking a photo or video of the performance: "You will be shot." Note to Badu: She should have told the crowd to just turn the phones off. The ESPN alert went off more than once and someone's alarm was finally silenced. (Badu did give a reason for her control of most of the show: "I just didn't want to pay anybody else.")
She also proved it in the way people had paid to see: She introduced the characters from her experience. Some had profound exclamations that were greeted with applause, some were a little profane, some were actually expected. She played with accents and voices -- and her phone. The audience got to watch TV with her; in the older character's voice, she took herself to task for moving too quickly with her legs. She took the audience on a trip with her, smoke wisping from a pipe, and even took a bath while ruminating on racism.
The audience got to watch her eat in one of the more effective, if a little perplexing, vignettes of the night. A remark on privilege, perhaps? No food or drink was allowed in the theater. They waited patiently, laughs here and there, and she acknowledged their presence with gestures.
Those who chose this performance because they thought they were coming for a confessional, a little girl time with Erykah, got a surprise. That was only part of it, and she made them wait for it.
She did give fair warning, more than once, "We're all here to experience the consequences of our choices and our judgments."
Never mind them: Badu was clearly at home on this stage, under the auspices of one of the arts programs with which she grew up. That was never more apparent than when she sang on a corner, made more powerful because it wasn't that often. Her songs have always spoken in the way people talked, just with more interesting phrasing.
She's proven over the course of her decades-long career in the spotlight that she has what it takes to take command of a stage. That's why her resume -- she'll host the Soul Train Awards at the end of the month -- keeps getting fresher. Her foray into improvisational theater must have been in her subconscious during one of her last concert stops at Verizon Theatre, which seemed as if it was an experimental set with lots of stops and starts -- and a laptop.
Early on, she pointed out the exits to anyone who didn't like it. But this audience stayed, perhaps even waiting on an encore of some sort because she has a lot going on. In early October, she dropped "Hotline Bling But U Cain't Use My Phone Mix," a remix of Drake's song of almost the same name. She's releasing a mixtape next week called But You Cain't Use My Phone, a line from a 1997 grass-roots groundswell of a song called "Tyrone." She pops up on bills as a DJ, like at the return to the mic of D.O.C. at the Bomb Factory this month. They know she's quick, too, with a line, even when she's away from the stage: "Hello, officer, don't beat me. I'm doing a show." And, as even casual fans know, with Ms. Badu, you just never know.
She always has something to say, in so many forms and so many ways. When it coalesces, maybe tonight, maybe the next -- y'all are in Trouble. That's right: with a capital "T." And possibly even nude.