EmptyGeffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through May 25
A slave ship called Remembrance rises out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty, sending New York into its usual cynical manic mode, a combination of tabloid reporting tinged with stock sitcom concerns. As the media gathers and a rapid-fire newsreel-style delivery of events ensues, a black father swims out to the ship and engages its ghostly captain in a war of words; at stake are the lost souls of himself, his two sons and, by extension, the entire nation.
It is a brilliantly ambitious but deeply conflicted context in which to frame a high-voltage discussion of the state and possible resolution of America's racial divide, accompanied by a perhaps unintended but no less troubling confusion over black sexual identity. Using powerful poetry, moving musical skills and sheer acting horsepower, writer-actor-humorist-singer-rapper-activist-slam poet Daniel Beaty fields a bewildering casts of 40 characters to play out a parable of more-or-less modern times.
Although the nominal issues are whether ancestors of the nation's original black and white Americans can ever enjoy true freedom and liberty, given the historical backdrop that seems to be eternally and inextricably binding them, the impact of Beaty's set pieces, songs and soliloquies is to portray a cruelly divided black American psyche in which racial and sexual stereotypes derived from pop culture play the dominant roles.
Most impressively from a technical point of view, the stories triggered by the slave ship scenario emerge as a series of immaculately connected subplots including a televised poetry contest in the style of "American Idol" called "America's Next Top Poet"; the relationship between one of the contestants, his gay brother and their violently widowed father; and a young boy who sings in the Boys Choir of Harlem and his best friend, a girl born with HIV. The appearance of the slave ship also brings a patronizing "slaveologist" and other academic types out of the woodwork.
Throughout, Beaty's high-energy delivery and ability to play many different characters blends with his relentlessly funny and biting script. The prostitute thinks the hulking slave ship is "the new Carnival cruise ship," while another character reports that Oprah Winfrey is characterizing the appearance of the slave ship as a "full circle" moment. However, despite the fact that the original production opened in New York in 2006, it's still surprising that there is only one reference to this year's presidential campaign.
Ultimately, it's the brilliant device of the poetry contest, hosted by an extravagantly swish caricature (as are most of the women, the gay brother and a transgender prostitute), that holds the 80-minute show together. Each of the four "contestants" delivers deeply moving, highly charged, individually stylized and theatrically dynamite presentations.
At the end, when solo riffs by the children, a grandmother with traditional Southern values and the straight brother bring the audience to their feet, the pervasive presence of Beaty's over-the-top characterizations continue to sound a disturbing note, undercutting his otherwise rousing clarion calls for brotherhood, education and unity.
Presented by Geffen Playhouse
Playwright-songs: Daniel Beaty
Director: Charles Randolph-Wright
Cast: Daniel Beaty