Beaty's 'Emergence-See' Rises Powerfully from the Deep
There are two kinds of great solo performers - those who can evoke awed silence in audiences, and those who can stir them to laughter, cheers and impassioned cries of affirmation.
Daniel Beaty - who is part slam poet, part motivational speaker and a completely phenomenal performer - belongs in the latter louder category. In Emergence-See, his kaleidoscopic one-man play about racial reconnection that runs at Arena Stage through July 22nd, Beaty embodies an astonishing 43 characters and creates a powerful bond between himself and the audience. The theatre has often been referred to as a temple, but seldom does it feel like such a rousing revival meeting. From the start, Beaty (whom calling multitalented is akin to saying that Bill Gates is well-off) encouraged the ethnically diverse audience to vocally participate in the performance that I attended. They obliged; what followed was an inspiring evening of pure theatre - an hour-and-a-half love affair between audience and actor.
Artfully blending docudrama, slam poetry, comedy and music (he sings a gorgeous "Amazing Grace"), Beaty plays dozens of people reacting to a near-miraculous occurrence. A ship, on which the Dutch once shackled Ghanan slaves, has emerged out of the Hudson in front of the Statue of Liberty. The slave ship, meaningfully called "The Remembrance," calls up different feelings from the people who hear about it or see it. Is it a grim reminder of a shameful past, or an opportunity for cultural healing? Is it even real, or a shared hallucinated metaphor offering the conscious choice to achieve freedom and identity?
In considering these issues - and bringing up such topics as African-American assimilation into a predominately white upper middle-class society, education in inner city schools, and the vicious circles of poverty and crime - Beaty transforms into characters ranging from slam poets, a Republic business executive, an "attorney for African-American reparations" and a free-thinking Jamaican man, to a wise 76 year-old grandmother and a transsexual hustler. Adjusting his voice and mannerisms to precisely pitched - and often hilarious - effects, Beaty suggests that the pernicious legacy of slavery lives on in the minds and souls of those who would seek to sever connections to their heritage. As the attorney says, some can have a P.H.D. and a six-figure income and still be like slaves.
Although Beaty frenetically juggles personae, he's most often seen as three members of a troubled family who are particularly affected by the appearance of the slave ship. Emergence-See doesn't have a plot so much as a throughline, in which slam poet Rodney and his brother Freddie (whose homosexuality traces an interesting sidestreet within the play's racial territory) attempt to get to their father, who has climbed onto the slave ship. This effort - and a pull-over by a prejudiced police officer on the way to the docks - delays Rodney's performance in a slam poetry contest. (Really, this is fortunate, as Beaty gets to, as other poets, perform showstopping verbal gymnastics around his themes before finally getting to go on as Rodney).
The father, Reginald, is a haunted figure who has lost some of his mental stability due to his wife's murder by a young black man, whom he considers nothing more than a debased hoodlum. Already a professor of English literature, he strengthens his resolve to shape his life around Caucasian traditions - and is disappointed when Rodney decides to major in African-American literature and pursue a career in hip-hop-flavored slam poetry. After climbing onto the ship, Reginald is impelled to reconsider some of his ideals - by an encounter with the spirit of the once-enslaved Chief Kofi. The fact that Kofi has been dead for 400 years doesn't keep him from showing the father visions of chained bones - and ironically quoting Shakespeare to him. (Although performed with intensity and conviction, as well as a skillful flipping between characters, these scenes at times push Beaty's good intentions into bombast). By the end of the play, Reginald has realized that his life was unfulfilling without some kind of connection to his roots, as he envisions the bones of the African slaves.
If Beaty's arguments are a bit too blatantly one-sided in warning against too much racial and cultural assimilation, it's a tactic at which such accomplished artist-moralizers such as Michael Moore have not shied away. Beaty has a valuable and valiant message to impart to not only African-American audiences, but to anyone who has drifted too far from the shores of a heritage rich in shared cultural values. And he seldom lets the moralizing dilute the irreverent humor of the piece. Among his funniest creations are a vivacious little girl named Clarissa, who relates the inspirational fairy tale of "Kinky Hair and the Three Bears," and a raspy-voiced homeless man given to impromptu renditions of The Temptations songs and recollections of his mother's pound cake. This character, who believes the Statue of Liberty was drafted as a black woman, also has one of the play's funniest lines: "Until they give (her) a flat nose and a fat ass, she ain't my girl."
With Emergence-See, Daniel Beaty has crafted a vital piece of theatre - as immediate as a slam poem and full of rich human history.
Visit www.arenastage.org for tickets and more information.
Photos by Michal Daniel
From This Author Maya Cantu