Every woman must learn to love herself in the midst of a world telling her all the reasons not to. Hunger, written and performed by Ebony Stewart, is the story of one woman's journey toward that love.

Through a mixture of poetry, storytelling, and music, Stewart speaks about the pain of growing up with a loving mother and an absentee father. Of being surrounded by strong female role models, yet abandoned by the first man you ever knew. Of knowing anger and hurt before passion and love. The crack which makes its way across the stage floor represents the fissure in Stewart's heart – one which has yet to be undone.

The set is minimal and props are mostly well used. In one of the most powerful moments in the piece, Stewart uses the set to illustrate the destruction of her marriage. I wish every prop or set piece was so closely tied to the emotional through-line of the performance. The walls of the Blackbox Theatre itself are covered with chalk words and phrases. It seems like a missed opportunity to not make that part of the set more dynamic; seeing Stewart physically writing on the walls might have added a sense of urgency and fleshed out key moments in the performance.

Stewart says she came to love writing while journaling in therapy after her father left. Her story is a powerful portrayal of the way art can work to heal our deepest wounds. “All girls hunger for their absent father,” she says, “no matter how he left.” Stewart turned to poetry in an attempt to satisfy that hunger, or at least give it a name.

With vulnerability and honesty, Stewart goes on to tell the story of her own marriage and divorce. How she can't always control her anger. The ways she learned to hold feelings in and never learned to communicate effectively. How people don't often talk (or think) about what marriage means to them or what they want from it until they are already there. “They don't tell you how to argue or make up,” Stewart declares, and she's right. Our culture's happily ever after narrative of courtship and marriage doesn't teach couples how to live together or resolve the inevitable conflicts which arise when two people tie their lives so closely together.

Stewart's experience is not unique, and her telling of it highlights how broken our culture's ideas of love, marriage, and monogamy can be. “When a girl becomes a woman, she knows how to talk herself out of being loved,” Stewart declares. “I spent a lot of time being afraid of being alone,” she continues, reminding the audience that loneliness is not a reason to stay in a broken relationship. Without a positive role model for a loving marriage, Stewart's own relationship flounders, proving once again that love isn't always enough.

While aspects of Stewart's story are universal, it is also tied to her journey as a black woman in America. She recalls how every woman in her family kept a knife under their pillow, and how her mother braided her hair every day because “when your hair is a mess they think your life is, too.” Stewart says, “I've been practicing my whole life what makes people comfortable,” highlighting the ways white culture attempts to either assimilate or destroy minority cultures.

Stewart tells the story of how she graduated with a BA in English, but would be given a C (or worse) by white college professors when her interpretation of the literature didn't agree with that of her white classmates. Yet, she never lost her love for language or poetry, and found her own unique voice in spite of it all. “I will use all my black girl magic, strength, and wit to protect myself,” Stewart declares, refusing to let white culture alone define her existence or her art.

An award-winning slam poet, Stewart's passion comes through when she's reciting verse, and her personality shines when she's remembering the powerful women in her family. There are moments in the first act which still feel a little rehearsed, but I believe the show will find its footing and tempo as the run continues. Stewart's performance is engaging throughout, and powerful enough to hold audience attention throughout. The second act is stronger than the first, and the show ends with a powerful declaration of strength, self-love, and solidarity with other women who grew up with a hole in their hearts instead of a father.

“The artist is born hungry, forever wanting,” Stewart says. Her performance explores the ways we hunger not only for food, but for love, acceptance, praise, and a sense of wholeness. Ultimately, Stewart discovers that we must learn to satiate ourselves, becoming a positive role model for others suffering from feelings of low self-worth or inadequacy.

Hunger is well worth the ticket price, but be prepared to be moved. Though there are moments of lightness and comedy, the show is filled with accounts of pain, loss, failure, and abuse. Stewart is raw and honest in accounting the causes of her hunger, refusing to soften her journey of self-discovery to spare audience feelings. Stewart wipes away a few tears of her own during the show, and you will, too.

But if you've ever felt that gnawing pain in your stomach or your heart, this is the show for you. Hunger runs through September 5 at the Vortex. Tickets are available here.

This review was originally published by The Horn on 8/28/2015.

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