Syl Jones’ Black No More concerns what happens to America’s social fabric when an African-American scientist invents an “E-Race-O-Lator” that can turn black people “whiter than Moby’s dick.” The playwright subtitles his comic riff on George Schuyler’s 1931 novel “a social science fiction,” an appellation to which Arena Stage publicists have helpfully appended the word “satire” in their press releases.
I suspect audiences would get the point without all the pointing. Still, the issue of race is like that these days. Gotta be careful.
So naturally, the most refreshing thing about Black No Morewhich was co-produced by the Guthrie Theater and the Mixed Blood Theatre Co.is that for much of its length, it isn’t particularly careful. Indeed, it’s sort of sloppy. The author sprays racial jokes around the auditorium with wild abandon, pokes fun at every available stereotype, be it black or white, and lampoons bigotry with the fervor of a stand-up comic on a roll. The evening is willfully irreverent, scathingly hip, and, once in a while, even funny, though the downside to taking so scattershot an approach is that many jests miss their targets.
The plot’s central premise is that America’s black population is so eager to embrace the “chromatic emancipation” offered by the E-Race-O-Lator that before their white brethren can say “miscegenation,” skin color becomes entirely unreliable as an indicator of race and class. Naturally, any social fabric based on those distinctionsand in this show’s America, they’re the only ones that matterwill immediately unravel. “Who’ll take out our garbage and breast-feed our babies?” wonder panicky white politicians. “We’ll be reduced to lynching Catholics and Jews,” wail commentators. In real life, it’s never quite that simple, but this show isn’t claiming to be real life.
Scruffy Max Disher (Gregory Simmons) is the first to emerge from the machine (conceived by designer Donald Eastman as the sort of techno-deco monstrosity that would look right at home in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil)and his makeup-free transformation from streetwise soul brother to tight-assed blond preppy is legitimately funny. Except for a golden wig, his stage “whiteness” is entirely a matter of attitude and posture. The moment Max is ramrod straight, talking like a TV anchor, walking without a strut, and hankering for a game of golf, he’s embraced by white society, especially by the seductive daughter of a fire-breathing racist preacher.
Meanwhile, as more and more of the black populace E-Race-O-Lates itself into upward mobility, a few African-American entrepreneurs realize there’s money to be made teaching freshly unemployed white workers to toady and shuffle so they can acquire jobs at the lower end of the labor spectrum. No one gets immunity in Black No More, except perhaps the audience, which is allowed to feel superior to racists of every stripe.
I’m told that Schuyler’s booksaid to be the first novel-length satire written by an African-Americanisn’t particularly distinguished, and that in any event, Jones has only used it as a springboard from which to perform the theatrical equivalent of a triple-gainer with a twist. The evening’s central notion is that race is just a mask for social distinctions that have far more to do with class and economics than with skin color; racism is thus a preposterous cultural sideshow. Hence, racism may as well be depicted as a sideshow, and that’s just what Jones and director Tazewell Thompson do in a production that somersaults vaudeville-style through an exhaustively clever but ultimately exhausting array of comic sketches, scenes, and musical numbers.
In a sense, the show’s greatest strengthits nonstop lunacyis also its biggest weakness. You have to admire the wealth of influences the show’s creators bring to bear on their subject, as well as their ability to get laughs from both black and white patrons with the same jokes. Not every play, after all, could shoehorn a topical D.C. jest (“Could be we’ll get us a colored mayor, and that ain’t nothing to sniff at”) into an elaborately set up, Amos ‘n’ Andy-style radio routine.
Yet if there’s much to like in Black No More, there’s also just plain too much of Black No Moretoo many points, most of which get hammered home too many times; too much crudeness; too many jokey names (Dr. Crookman, Sam Buggerie, the Knights of Nordica); too many scene changes; and waaay too much frenzy. By intermission, you’re yearning for a moment of quietthe sort of respite that a traditional evening of vaudeville would provide in a sweetly sung balladbut this show’s over-the-top aesthetic dictates that things must keep escalating and getting louder.
Though the actors appear to have been encouraged to shout and gesticulate as if they were auditioning to be carnival barkers (an impression enhanced by Fabian Obispo’s honky-tonk music during scene changes and a stage festooned with strings of multi-hued light bulbs), there is quite a bit of delicacy to their work. Simmons makes Max terrifically engagingat once surprised and calculatingas he rises to the top of the political establishment that once held him down. As the sweetheart who won’t give him the time of day prior to his transformation but who becomes his soul mate thereafter, Patricia Ben Peterson is more than the kewpie doll with attitude that the script imagines, and Shawn Judge has some lovely moments as that kewpie doll’s resentful, tables-turning maid.
Still, there’s only so much performers can do with material so hellbent on wresting guffaws from an audience that it hasn’t time for much in the way of subtlety and grace. In my notes, I always scribble down lines of dialogue that catch the ear, and this time, I wrote down punch lines galore…but hardly a phrase you’d call pretty.
Then again, there’s only so much to be said for evocative language. “My inmost caves are open to you,” says septuagenarian Else Lasker-Schüler, by way of offering her body to a man half her age in Exile in Jerusalem. She is given to metaphorspresumably they come with the territory when one is a poetbut the guy she’s talking to appears not to be up for spelunking. Perhaps he’s remembering that she has stolen from him, driven him from his home, and verbally abused him in front of a crowd of poetry lovers he assembled for one of her recitals. Or perhaps he’s just appalled by the offer. He is, let’s note, a critic.
His name is Werner, and he appears to be the only person in 1939 Jerusalem who appreciates Else’s genius. He is initially thrilled by her unexpected arrival as a refugee, having written about her work in Germany before he was forced to flee the Nazis and subsist by selling perfumes from a suitcase. If he can help her publish a volume of poetry, he figures, they may both regain their literary standing.
But she proves unwilling to have her German poetry translated into modern Hebrew, and that’s a stumbling block. “No one’s going to read poems written in the language abused by the house-painter,” Werner tells her, using a metaphor of his own to refer to Hitler. “If you whitewash a violet, is it still a violet?” Else fires right back, and from there, things deteriorate steadily.
Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner has constructed Exile in Jerusalemwhich was produced under the title Else in Tel Aviv, where Lasker-Schüler’s work is better knownas a series of escalating confrontations between this practical young man and his elderly, passionately artistic house guest. And in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s intelligent but seriously miscast production for Theater J, it’s possible to discern the outlines of a vaguely Harold and Maude-ish drama of ideas. Only the outlines emerge though, for with thirtysomething Celeste Lawson stooping, shuffling, and cackling to portray a character at least three decades her senior, the May-December aspects of the evening are so undermined that the central relationship hasn’t even a shot at resonance. Timothy Flynn plays Werner as reserved and thoughtful almost to a fault, but the staging’s attempts to contrast his down-to-earthiness with Lasker-Schüler’s flights of fancy end up hopelessly compromised.
Take that moment where the aged poet offers her body to her young benefactor. It’s easy to imagine how such a scene, if played by a woman of 70 and a man in his 30s, might be ineffably sad, filled with coquettish yearning on her part and polite distress on his. Instead, played by performers of roughly the same age, it seems merely to be about sexual rejection. The rest of their encounters aren’t quite that flat-footed, but despite handsome production values and obvious reverence for the material, very little of the evening comes across as plausible, let alone affecting.CP