Put enough pressure on a piece of coal and you’ll have a diamond.
While few would call the circumstances of Elaine Del Valle’s childhood “right,” watching her autobiographical one-woman show, “Brownsville Bred” — on stage at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls through Oct. 17 — it is clear that she is a shining example of hurdles overcome.
Like pressure-packed diamonds, rated for their four C’s — cut, color, clarity and carat — “Brownsville Bred” is certainly ring-worthy, particulary in the first-class setting of the Schoolhouse.
In terms of cut, Del Valle’s multi-faceted performance mixes anger, innocence, pain and wonder as she navigates corrugated, graffitied, chain-linked Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1980s.
She learns early that growing up in Brownsville means crossing the street every half block to make sure you’re not being followed.
It means waving to an imaginary friend across the street to ward off those who prey on the all-alone.
It means going out of your way to avoid the methodone clinic.
Del Valle’s writing is natural, her imagery powerful, her life’s journey hopeful and harrowing.
As for color, Del Valle jokes she’s one of just 17 Puerto Ricans in her neighborhood.
While she’s proud, she knows she doesn’t fit in.
“We live in Brownsville,” she says. “I want to be black.”
She bristles when her father plays his salsa records, but beams when she hears him sing along.
Asked to sing a song at a high-school audition, the only one that leaps to Del Valle’s mind is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “the black national anthem.”
Del Valle’s observations have compelling clarity. Those beautiful brown eyes took it all in.
She saw how crack gripped her neighborhood, creating “crackheads, crack families, crack apartments, and crack stores.”
She describe crack-vial sizes in terms she understands: as big as a .22 shell, or a .38 shell, or an Uzi shell.
Still, there were simpler childhood moments: watching “Mork & Mindy,” listening to records, dealing with the pain of puppy love.
“Wham! got it right, yo,” she says. “When you’re in heartbreak, guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm.”
Amid the laughter — and there is plenty of laughter — Del Valle also had moments no child should have to endure, moments of 40-carat gravity that leave a lump in the throat and bring a tear to the eye.
As an actress, her emotions are raw and ready.
There is love and loss, hope and disappointment. But through it all, Del Valle’s squeaky voice rarely loses its lilt. She’s positively charming.
When she was a kid growing up in the projects, Del Valle would descend the 14 steps between floors by walking down the first two and leaping the rest of the way down, counting “Step, step, twelve!” “Step, step, twelve!” as she went.
In “Brownsville Bred,” she manages to take that leap into the heart, to make her particular story universal and relatable.
Jason Bolen’s set is impeccably rendered, lit expertly by David Pentz, who gets kudos — along with sound designer Matt Stine — for a great overhead-train effect during one of the evening’s tensest moments.
Schoolhouse artistic director Pamela Moller Kareman saw an earlier incarnation of the show and worked with Del Valle to expand it and bring it to Croton Falls.
Credit Kareman for polishing the gem and for bravely bringing it north. It’s thought-provoking, moving theater that deserves to be seen.
Del Valle fills the Schoolhouse stage with so many memorable characters, you expect them all to show up at the curtain call.
But Del Valle stands alone.
Cut, color, clarity and carat aren’t enough C’s to describe this diamond: Add captivating, compelling and charming to the list.
Photo by Susanna Buckley: Elaine Del Valle in “Brownsville Bred.”
When: Through Oct. 17. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $30 Thursdays and Fridays; $32 Saturdays and Sundays. Season subscribers pay $75 for Thursdays and Fridays, $81 for Saturdays and Sundays — 15 percent off the single-ticket price.