BWW Review: EVERYBODY BLACK at Actors Theatre Of Louisville
Everybody Black is a play. On a stage. But it actually comes off like a series of television programs that one might come across channel surfing in a fit of insomnia; a fever dream of sorts in which the sleepless viewer has mysteriously slipped into a different world than they remember.
There is an episode of that sitcom about the sassy Black family from the early 1980s that we watched when we were kids, and then that erudite talk show that PBS airs in a rerun at 2:00 am and the host is interviewing two African Americans who are addicted to dating White people and ONLY White people and is that an episode of Black Mirror where a young Black man of today is comparing his life to that of a Black slave from 200 years ago after finding themselves at the same bus stop? Crazy man!
Not everything in this freewheeling theatrical exercise fits so neatly into this concept, although the most purely entertaining moments are arguably an extended Soul Train-esque musical number, and when playwright Dave Harris strays from it, there is purpose driving every choice. Despite the sometimes loose, overall ramshackle quality to the comedy revue format, there is great intention in everything that takes place onstage.
J. Cameron Barnett kicks off the action with energetic comic verve as The Playwright, who, contrary to his overemphatic Hip/Soulful/Streetwise/Black persona, has "never met a Black person". He acknowledges this while confessing that he has accepted a large commission to write the final word on "The Black Experience ™". The sacrifice of identity to greed is a theme running through this play, and it returns very pointedly in a hilarious Rap Battle between Nsangou Njikam and Galen Ryan Kane that made me think of the refrain from Childish Gambino's "This Is America":
Grandma told me
Get your money, black man (get your money)
Just before intermission, a confrontation between The Playwright and the ensemble ends with his proclamation that he will deliver an honest representation about The Black Experience. If Act one is a satirical summary of the role Black characters have played in popular culture, Act two is where Harris reaches for a more meaningful context, albeit every bit as contrary and problematic as what came before. The cluttered Sanford and Son vibe of the first half set is replaced by an immaculate white box containing two Black servants preparing a meal for their White employers. Aunt Jemima (Christina Acosta Robinson) is beating eggs while Uncle Ben (Kane again) chops vegetables, which means Harris is employing two of the most identifiable and outmoded Black commercial icons in this "honest" scenario. Jemima complains about how she has been redesigned so many times that she hardly recognizes herself - Robinson is tall and slender and indeed very far from the original "Mammy" stereotype, while Ben has remained largely unchanged.
This consideration of gender is slipped into a much broader canvas devoted to race, and a clear indication that Everybody Black is far more complex than the highly entertaining early scenes have led you to believe. In the unexpected final segment, Harris finally arrives at something like the "truth", which is that history can be seen as simply a gathering of stories that can never escape subjectivity, and one single confession might be more important than all of the self-important stories of the Black experience that the mass media trots out for February or other months when ratings are determined.
Director Awoye Timpo lets her amazing ensemble open up and run in multiple roles, and they respond with virtuoso work. Besides the aforementioned examples, Ashley N. Hildreth is quite wonderful as a young woman anxious to join a protest march but who assumes the thing was canceled because of rain, and Sharina Martin is so brilliant as one of the two talk show guests afflicted with the addiction to dating White people, her paroxysms of ecstasy in response to a picture of Caucasian celebrities have to be seen to be believed. Inspired. Nsangou Njikam combines an easygoing Everyman presence with pointed action, and Galen Ryan Kane gets the honor of closing the play with an abundance of centered, graceful identity.
Cameron Barnett is given arguably the two highest-profile characters as The Playwright and, in a scene that is likely to be the most talked-about moment of this production, a fantasy of President Barack Obama straight from a parallel universe: "I WAS born in Africa!" Barnett brings the self-righteous taken-with-the-spirit physicality of a Southern Baptist Preacher into movement of near-total abandon that set the tone for the level of commitment from all of these players. This ensemble appears capable of delivering anything that is asked of them.
The design work is stellar, which may have been a challenge for a show that demands so many styles. Junkyard to antiseptic fantasy, the look is always there in Kristen Robinson's sets and Olana Botez' costumes - my favorites were the sparkly outfits for the musical number, alternately sexy, stately and comical. Luqman Brown wrote original music that never strains to capture the period and always helped spark the onstage energy. Reza Behjat did the lighting, Christian Frederickson did the sound, Philip Allgeier the media and Safiyyah Rasool was Movement Director.
As a White reviewer, I have to acknowledge that I may be missing some of the finer points of Harris's work here. I recognize many of the false histories on display, and I can laugh easily at how he mines minstrel show strains in popular culture or the more covert racism of the milestones of inclusion celebrated through recent "history" - you could write a lengthy article on the 2019 Oscars alone, and I am confident that Harris and Timpo are pitching to a wider, more diverse audience than just Black Americans. But, in this skin, I can never truly identify with how it was to experience these subjective histories and entertainments and how much Black culture has constantly been compartmentalized - kept in its place, as it were. Not everything fits into this "Canon", but Everybody Black forces us to confront how much has indeed been boxed in. We are prone to mistake complacency for progress.
March 19 - April 7, 2019
Part of the 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202