'Black Super Hero Magic Mama': Theater Review

Kimberly Hebert Gregory and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams in 'Black Super Hero Magic Mama' -Publicity-H 2019
Chris Whitaker
Half-baked but well-done.

The Geffen Playhouse world-premieres a tragicomic fantasy about police shootings and a mother's grief from 'The Rookie' writer Inda Craig-Galvan.

When Inda Craig-Galvan was pursuing her MFA at the University of Southern California, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by Cleveland police while playing in a park. As she watched his mother on the news, the playwright knew she wanted to write on the subject. She noticed that figures like Samaria Rice become politicized by the community and manipulated by the media but are seldom given room simply to grieve.

In the first act of Craig-Galvan’s new play, Black Super Hero Magic Mama, single mother Sabrina Jackson (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), who lived with her clever and vivacious 14-year-old son Tramarion (Cedric Joe), never stops grieving when he is gunned down by police. In the second act, she springs into action as a superhero, Maasai Angel. That marks a drastic tonal switch in this tragicomic fantasy, artfully rendered by director Robert O'Hara along with an exemplary cast led by the transcendent Gregory in a play which, after five years in development, is almost ready.

More vital than the play's gestation period are its ingredients — a playwright of color talking about people of color suffering the loss of a child at the hands of the police, an injustice reaching near-epidemic proportions. At a time when African-Americans are killed by police at a rate of 7.2 per million, compared to 2.9 per million for whites, Craig-Galvan's voice demands to be heard.

The play's early scenes between Sabrina and Tramarion ring with authenticity as she corrects the boy’s colloquialisms, quizzes him for an upcoming contest on black history and becomes way more engaged than he is in the Harry Potter book she reads him at bedtime. The action plays out with genuine warmth and a routine rapport seemingly established over years on set designer Myung Hee Cho's practical raised bedroom, including a desk, bed and chair downstage from projection designer Yee Eun Nam's dreary backdrop of Chicago’s South Side.  

The day of the big contest, Sabrina returns to her apartment alone, traumatized and with blood smeared on her clothing. The headline is delivered by zippy robotic local news anchors played by Reiko Aylesworth and Kevin Douglas in an inspired satirical take on a carnivorous and uncaring media. Meanwhile, Sabrina withdraws, lost in flashbacks of Tramarion in the weeks leading up to his murder.

Director O'Hara, who so delicately handled Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2), reunites here with Gregory, whom he directed in Barbecue, also at the Geffen Playhouse. Their work is seamless as he guides her on a wavering line between pathos and bathos, strung along on Craig-Galvan’s sharp dialogue and multifaceted characterizations. But as Sabrina destabilizes into a catatonic stupor, the plot stagnates, despite the coaxing of her art-dealer sister, Lena, a beguiling Cynthia Kaye McWilliams.

As the first act ends, the "super hero" of the title emerges, Sabrina dressed as Maasai Angel, a comic book character created by Tramarion and his best friend Flat Joe (Noah Abbott). Her objective is to get back what is hers. Re-energized with halberd in hand, and clad in costume designer Karen Perry’s embroidered armor, she sets forth to face supervillains and level up.

In her travails, TV news anchors from Fox News vying for a piece of her story become supervillains Lady Vulture and Hyena Man, an appropriate riff on tabloid coverage. But why is Tramarion's academic coach, Corey Brackett (Daryl C. Brown), a mentor to Sabrina’s son and boyfriend to her sister, considered a villain? Likewise, Black Superman, who is based on Flat Joe.

To make the play more political and less personal would be to undermine Craig-Galvan’s overriding notion of letting a mother grieve any way she needs. What are we to make of Sabrina, shut off in her land of superheroes, when many believe she has an obligation to stand up to the injustice that killed her son and give voice to a movement?

As such, Craig-Galvan, a staff writer on ABC's The Rookie, has written a nonpolitical play based on a crime loaded with politics. Sabrina's frustration with the victim-blaming media is well placed, but what about a department that produces killer cops? And what about a criminal justice system that punishes them by putting them on paid leave? Magic Mama chooses to avoid these questions, making villains of Tramarion's mentor and best friend instead.

Barry Jenkins' movie If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story about a star-crossed couple wrenched apart by a racist patriarchy, which remains a persistent backdrop throughout, impacting plot but never upstaging the separated pair. Magic Mama attempts to walk the same line, presenting a stylized portrait of grief that is more personal than political, but it becomes mired in, rather than freed by, imagination.

Craig-Galvan is correct when she says no one should be denied the right to grieve in private, nor is it incumbent upon them to make a public statement, no matter how public the loss or the freighted circumstances surrounding it. In time, Sabrina's inner journey confronting demons through the death of her son could be every bit as engaging and as relevant as an outer journey confronting racist policing and an unjust criminal justice system, aspects that remain unexplored here. Black Super Hero Magic Mama shows great promise but needs more work. There’s magic in the performances and heroism in the writing, just not enough of it.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Noah Abbott, Reiko Aylesworth, Walter Belenky, Daryl C. Brown, Kevin Douglas, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Cedric Joe, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams
Director: Robert O'Hara
Playwright: Inda Craig-Galván
Set designer: Myung Hee Cho
Costume designer: Karen Perry
Lighting designer: Alex Jainchill
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Projection designer: Yee Eun Nam
Presented by The Geffen Playhouse, Edgerton Foundation New Play Production Fund, The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation and The David Lee Foundation