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Exclamation points are like condoms: You don’t really wanna use ’em unless you have to, and when everybody feels like they have to, it’s fair to say something’s gone pretty seriously wrong. Producers of dubious theatrical properties are notoriously promiscuous about the extraneous exclamatory mark: Think of Oliver! or that New Jersey Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation titled simply Pirates! or, God help us, the global phenomenon that is Mamma Mia! It’s such an easily parodied reflex that the Wodehousean comic novelist (and sometime Desperate Housewives script doctor) Joe Keenan, in his cult favorite Blue Heaven, once convulsed literally dozens of theater-queen readers with a snarky passage about a leaden musicalization of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar titled, inevitably, Bong!
So imagine the anticipation in my household about the Arena Stage presentation of Emergence-SEE!, billed as a one-man slam-poetry commentary on modern African-American identity and personal freedom. That, and a trip to the dentist this week, too: Yay.
Turns out it’s pretty damn good. So screw the skepticism, the exclamation-point cynicism, the cringing fear of poetry-slam cheese. Daniel Beaty’s caffeinated, syncopated solo show starts with the notion that a slave ship has surfaced in the Hudson—opposite the Statue of Liberty, presumably for the sake of the painful irony—and whirlwinds through a whole host of reactions from the New Yorkers who’ve gathered to gawk: Beaty’s news anchor deadpanning about the “slave-ologists” descending to research and pontificate; the disco kids who want to turn the ship into a club; the church lady testifying (and selling chicken); the “militant Negro” threatening to “shoot any muthafucka who try to move this muthafuckin’ ship!”
And that’s just in the first minute or two, before he introduces his deeply conflicted main character. Rodney, a Republican-leaning, Beemer-driving buppie whose starchy Shakespeare-scholar dad has always taught him to forget the pain of their past, thought he was headed for a poetry-slam championship—he’s apparently favored to win—but that was before Dad swam the Hudson and started capering atop the newly christened Remembrance.
As Rodney sets about trying to sort out the personal crisis blooming amid the nationally televised supernatural phenomenon, Beaty’s script swoops through New York City like a filmmaker with an unlimited helicopter budget: Scenes unfold in a Harlem park, where Rodney’s brother Freddie is hanging out with a transsexual friend and the handsome Jamaican they’re both crushing on; in the poetry cafe, where the audience gets to listen in as the other poets begin the slam; and aboard the ship itself, where Dad’s talking to the spirit of 400-year-old Chief Kofi, who speaks in Shakespearean couplets and turns out to be responsible for the vessel’s latest itinerary.
The scope of Beaty’s 90-minute performance piece, as you may have gathered, is pretty staggeringly ambitious, so it’s nice to be able to say that he’s mostly up to the challenge: He gears up and down, through voices and speech patterns and physical vocabularies, like he’s got a German-engineered transmission built into his bouncy frame. The writing’s pretty deft, with nicely rounded portraits of the main characters and pungent little sketches of types that evade stereotype by a whisker, and only because we know them. And Beaty keeps the evening moving, knocking out scenes with a dispatch and a sense of flow (credit the adroit sound and light design, by Timothy M. Thompson and Jason Arnold) that keep things feeling lively even after you’ve seen most of the actor’s tricks and figured out where it’s all headed.
Which is, more or less, to the realization (for both Rodney and his father) that a sense of collective memory, while it can be a trap for those who insist on wallowing or who let it define them utterly, may just be the only thing that can truly free these two, who’ve insisted—sometimes coolly, sometimes bitterly—that it’s a burden they’ve long since laid down. Nothing hugely revelatory there, but it’s all pretty smartly framed.
If there’s a soft spot, it’s that a show built on the spine of a poetry slam—and fronted by a hero the audience inevitably comes to root for—really cries out for one final poem and one final performance that blows the previous competitors away. And whether it’s that his inspiration ran out, or just his energy, Beaty doesn’t quite deliver.
Don’t get me wrong: A champion slam poet himself, Beaty serves up three or four certified roof-raisers in the personas of Rodney’s opponents while his hero races around New York. But when the man himself arrives at the cafe, the supposedly off-the-cuff verse he delivers—to explain his tardiness, and to sum up his wildass, eye-opening, mind-blowing day—doesn’t feel nearly as wildass, eye-opening, or mind-blowing as what’s gone before.
That’s a minor letdown, though, because what’s gone before is generally pretty thrilling. Maybe even—if I can get away with a little exuberance just this once, by way of penance for the dentist crack—downright thrilling!