Chesney Snow (In Transit) calls THE UNWRITTEN LAW: REALITY SHOWING OF MY AMERICAN LIFE "a choreopoem." Like everything else in Snow's exquisitely wrought and riveting autobiographical work, his invocation of the term coined by Ntozake Shange in 1975 to describe For colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf is deliberate. In just 65 minutes, Snow compresses one-hundred years of family history and anchors this into a larger historical narrative. Not a single word is superfluous or out of place; everything signifies.
The New York Times' Ben Brantley called Snow a "one-man sound machine," but in his latest production, the performer best known for his pioneering work in beatbox culture--Snow executive produced and starred in the award-winning film American Beatboxer, which was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he twice headlined at Carnegie Hall--is really a "one-man rewriter of history." Not just his personal history, but the history of African-Americans from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to present-day America. His family story, to use a term of poetry, functions as a synecdoche.
THE UNWRITTEN LAW, deftly directed and choreographed by Rebecca Arends, enacts in poetry, dance, and music the truths of law professor Michelle Alexander's important 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Color Blindness. One cannot but hear echoes of No Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by NYU law professor and Harvard Law graduate Bryan Stevenson, in the intergenerational narrative Snow (a guest artist in residence at Harvard) plots in his choreopoem.
A self-described black feminist, Shange hoped to create a new art form that eschewed plot, structure, and character, or at least valued "emotional response" above what she viewed the constraints of Western poetics (which ultimately derive from Aristotle). To this end, Shange relied on movement, diffuse monologues, and lyric. THE UNWRITTEN LAW, while hardly linear, has a clear plot with vividly drawn characters whose tortuous (and tortured) lives are often difficult to watch but not to follow. The events it describes in a combination of vignettes and poems may be nightmarish, but as the work's subtitle indicates, Snow is working within a realist (or naturalist) tradition.
Chesney's tale of lynching, poverty, child abuse, incarceration, absent and/or abusive fathers and stepfathers is not unique. The geographical sweep, however, is impressive. In his first 18 years, he moved from Oklahoma City to Chicago to Eupora, Mississippi, and finally to Platteville, WI, where he and his sister were the only black faces at a racist, small-town high school. His mother, Rene, who was just 20 when she became a mother, emerges as a heroine. To her, and others like her, Snow offers his "Ode to a Single Mom":
The linguistic spareness of the tribute is rare. Much of Snow's verse proceeds at a vertiginous pace. "I Am The Drums," a meditation on his life at two (after his mother left his father in Oklahoma City) conveys a sense of total rupture. Even the stage directions are presented in verse: "Effect is a time lapse/perhaps dance that signifies Journey/Of the Womb with underwater Whale soundscape/Morphs into Baby Face Leroy Trio with Muddy Waters play/Images of Chicago's Southside/Through the 20th century plays."
Not once during show does Snow falter in his delivery of the intricate, demanding language--even with the ceaselessly crying baby (who was loudest at the show's most painful moments). While extremely irritating, the baby allowed the audience to experience firsthand Snow's superhuman determination to overcome every obstacle.
THE UNWRITTEN LAW is not without moments of humor and tenderness. His account of an argument between his towering grandmama, who raised so many extended relatives in Eupore, Mississippi, and her drunk sister, is hilarious. (She actually shoots the rotund relative in the ass, after issuing a warning to leave. The sister registers shock: "You done shot me in the ass." "Aww, hell," Grandmama replies, "You got an ass big enough to drive a semi truck through!")
Snow's friendship with Bobby, with whom he started creating beats as a tween in a moment of normal bonding amidst madness, is deeply moving. Snow's empathy for Bobby's muscular dystrophy washes over the audience like a healing salve, becoming a model of how we can all be kinder to one another.
This is political theater at its best, with no trace of didacticism or victimhood. Like the best poetry, THE UNWRITTEN LAW indicates but does not explain overmuch. The events speak for themselves. It was impossible not to reflect on last week's Department of Justice announcement of its investigation into Harvard's admission practices and the inevitable revisiting of Affirmative Action.
Yet again, anyone on social media is subjected to the astonishing ignorance and wilful naivete of those who argue that candidates should be evaluated "on merit alone" with no regard for the history of institutional injustice that necessitated such programs in the first place. The UNWRITTEN LAW reminds us of that history, by giving a human face to the stories one might find in the notes of a lawyer from DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). It should be required viewing for all in law enforcement: prosecutors at the local, state, and federal level, as well as those in police academies. (Politicians would do well to see the show before they cuts arts funding, too.)
Snow himself became "a number" in the eyes of the justice system when he impregnated his biracial teen girlfriend (herself a victim of rape) in Wisconsin. It's a brutally unjust story, which includes a protracted attempt to get the child back from an abusive family in a trailer park. (A "literal trucker" named Bubba, we are told, rapes Snow's son, burning his "sacred parts" with cigarette butts. It's the second instance of sexual abuse by boyfriends of single mothers. Domestic violence is a constant; every single man with whom Rene attaches herself eventually turns violent.)
Yet for all this tragedy, THE UNWRITTEN LAW isn't a downer. One feels sadness and some anger but by the show's conclusion, the dominant feeling is simply awe--awe at the courage and beauty both of the show as a whole and of Snow himself. Snow, literally, wrote his way out of the despair.
The phenomenal dancing of Rebecca Arends and Maleek Washington are essential to the show's effect, as is the haunting union of A.J Khaw's piano and Varuni Tiruchelva's cello. The pure pleasure of the language, the dancing, and the music add up to 65 minutes of the most powerful theater I've ever witnessed.
The Unwritten Law runs at Dixon Place Sunday, August 13 at 6:30 PM and closes Monday, August 14 at 7:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased at www.dixonplace.org/performances/the-unwritten-law-2/ or by calling 866-811-4111.