Divinity Roxx tells story of own life in ‘Starchild: The Ballad of Debbie Walker’

by JAY LUSTIG
Starchild debbie walker review

DIVINITY ROXX

Divinity Roxx is best known for working with Beyoncé from 2006 to 2011. But don’t expect to hear much about that in her autobiographical show “Starchild: The Ballad of Debbie Walker,” which Crossroads Theatre Company is currently presenting, in its world premiere, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. She tells the story about how she came to audition for the job, and got it. But then she adds, “I toured the world with Beyoncé as her bass player and musical director for five years, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that, because I signed an air-tight NDA” (i.e., a non-disclosure agreement).

Is Divinity Roxx’s life story still interesting enough to build a play around? Yes. But does this play — written by her, directed by Daniel J. Watts and also featuring guitarist Wes Mingus and drummer Granville Mullings Jr., who provide musical accompaniment from behind a screen for most of the evening — really make the most out of it? I’d have to say no.

Divinity Roxx (who grew up in Decatur, Ga., and whose birth name is Debbie Walker) talks about her life, with occasional musical interludes and a show-ending mini-concert during which the screen hiding Mingus and Mullings is finally lifted. She is always engaging as a bassist and vocalist, and projects plenty of friendly charisma as a storyteller. But she needs to work on her content. The show’s biggest problem is that she dwells too long on her childhood and teen years, sharing all kinds of details — whether they are really necessary for her story, or not.

I mean, okay, she remembers her middle school cheerleader routine. But is there really any reason to share it with us? Or to describe a high school guidance counselor, who plays an extremely minor role in the story, in this kind of detail: “My counselor was a chubby white lady with short gray hair … She had tattoos and she rode a motorcycle. She was country as all get-out. But she was cool.”

I felt myself growing impatient with all the pointless detail as she worked her way through the chapters of her life in chronological order. It isn’t until more than an hour into the two-hour play that she finally quits her high school basketball team and decides to focus on music.

But the second half of the intermission-less show is indeed more lively. She suffers through the typical indignities of an aspiring musician, but never loses her drive or her determination. And you can feel the weight lifting off her shoulders when she gets her big break, a tour with the jazz/rock/funk bass virtuoso Victor Wooten. (He apparently doesn’t believe in NDAs, because Roxx talks much more about working with him.)

DIVINITY ROXX

Wooten becomes a sort of mentor to her, which works out great, because her adventurous musical spirit matches his. In addition to working with Beyoncé, Roxx has created a fusion of hip-hop and rock on her own albums, and also has put out a Grammy-nominated children’s album.

The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and Fergie appear briefly in her story, as does Kanye West. Roxx also spends a lot of time talking about her parents — and particularly her mother, a strong, creative woman who taught her to believe in herself, but also a woman who has struggled with addiction. (Roxx doesn’t pull any punches when describing the horrors her mother went through, but that was decades ago; long clean, her mother attended the show’s opening night.)

And while Roxx doesn’t say much about her high school girlfriend (“That’s a whole other play,” she tells us), she does talk at length about meeting her wife — a dancer for Beyoncé — while on tour, and the fulfilling life they have built together. This is a play with a very happy ending.

But is it really a play at all?

It was certainly more than just a monologue. The set, designed by Christopher Cumberbatch, creates the feel of a cluttered but welcoming family den, and Roxx does move around the stage purposefully (i.e., she doesn’t just stand there and talk). And her unquestionable talent as a musician and vocalist adds some larger-than-life magic to the mix.

But too much of “Starchild: The Ballad of Debbie Walker” seems like random memories, strung together — not vignettes that have been carefully chosen to explore certain themes and tell a larger story. And that blunts the drama — even though, paradoxically, Roxx leaves no doubt that there has been plenty of drama in her life.

Crossroads Theatre Company presents “Starchild: The Ballad of Debbie Walker” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through June 4. Visit crossroadstheatrecompany.com.

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