Overview: In ‘Black No Extra,’ Race Is Pores and skin Deep, however Racism Isn’t

The 1931 Afrofuturist novel from which the new musical “Black No More” takes its identify is hardly refined, beginning with its subtitle: “Being an Account of the Unusual and Great Workings of Science within the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940.” George S. Schuyler’s satire is mainly a thought experiment wherein a process that decolorizes Black folks solves America’s race downside however creates a brand new one when there’s nobody left for haters to hate.

The New Group’s musical model, which opened on Tuesday on the Pershing Sq. Signature Middle, makes the smart move to borrow solely the novel’s rudiments. It dumps many of the foolish names (Ezekiel Whooper, Rufus Kretin), skinny caricatures (of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, amongst others) and weirdly jovial tone in favor of a extra severe have a look at internalized racism and the conundrums of assimilation.

The consequence, directed by Scott Elliott, is a beautiful mess. Although it forefronts Schuyler’s central query — Is the purpose of racial progress the ennoblement of Blackness or its disappearance right into a “chromatic democracy”? — its tone is jumpy and its storytelling lumpy. The e-book by John Ridley, who wrote “12 Years a Slave,” makes solely midway repairs to the unique, whereas introducing new issues that music and dance can’t clear up.

However oh, what music and dance! That the rating is the work of many arms — lyrics by Tariq Trotter of the Roots; music by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters — appears to have been a bonus right here, serving to to ascertain the present’s numerous moods and personalities.

With nods to Kurt Weill, “Hamilton,” hip-hop, gospel, jazz, spoken phrase and Tin Pan Alley, amongst different aptly various inspirations and traditions, the songs reveal the characters’ yearnings and aversions, which regularly quantity to the identical factor. As nicely, below Waters’s musical supervision, they provide loads of alternatives for phenomenal singing from the forged of 26, accompanied by a terrific band of seven.

The choreography, by Invoice T. Jones, is likewise thrilling, typically illustrating particular concepts (just like the variations between Black and white social dancing) and different occasions expressing the general battle between racial delight and frustration. As a result of that battle stays unresolved within the story, Jones usually declines to resolve it in motion; numbers construct from rigidity to frenzy with out the overfamiliar Broadway-style climax.

However the sung and danced parts of “Black No Extra” show too thrilling for its wobbly e-book to help. Making the inventor of the decolorizing course of the narrator — his identify, alas, is Dr. Junius Crookman — instantly units the story on an odd footing; a impartial determine within the novel, he’s right here an amoral villain, and in Trotter’s uneven efficiency (glorious with the rapping, stiff with the performing) a bit too Dr. Evil. This instantly sidelines the precise central character, Max Disher, making a blurry focus from which the present by no means totally recovers.

Nonetheless, by the point Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon) turns into Crookman’s first affected person, submitting to what appears like a dental process, “Black No Extra” has effectively arrange his causes for selecting whiteness. Although he enjoys the “sporting life” he leads in Harlem, his security there from the stings of overt racism comes at a value. In “I Need It All,” his introductory tune, he explains that he’s by no means an entire man inside his neighborhood’s confines, however merely “three-fifths” of 1.

For others, although, Harlem is “heaven’s gate” and “the Mecca of the Black race.” Disher’s greatest pal — a person named Bunny within the novel however right here a lady named Buni — can’t perceive why anybody would depart a spot “the place an individual is aware of what they’re in for.” (Buni is performed by Tamika Lawrence, a surprising singer.) For Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), a personality new to the story, Disher is solely a traitor, promoting out the dream of Black excellence.

Each are particularly unimpressed by Disher’s baser motivations: to earn more money in a extra thrilling profession (he’s an insurance coverage salesman) and to hook up with the white lady from Atlanta he falls in love with one night time in a membership.

That lady, Helen Givens — performed by Jennifer Damiano in a Veronica Lake wig — is the musical’s most radically revamped character; she is far more sophisticated than the unreconstructed racist of the novel. Sadly, of their try to provide her larger company, the musical’s authors make her motives and decisions virtually incoherent.

Because the story begins to pile on plot — it feels too hasty even at an extended two hours and half-hour — the issue spreads to everybody else. Particularly after Disher and Givens marry in Georgia, and a child of doubtless blended race impends, the musical pushes too onerous towards tragedy, winding up nicely quick at melodrama.

And but, melodrama will be efficient, particularly when sung; the “melo” a part of the phrase, in spite of everything, means music. Aside from Sykes, who will get an ideal gospel quantity (“Lord Prepared if the Creek Don’t Rise”), the ladies are extra profitable than the lads at pushing previous the confusions of the plot. (Dixon, often a riveting performer, appears unusually recessive right here.) And don’t ask why Madame Sisseretta Blandish, the wonder impresario modeled on Madam C.J. Walker, sings not solely in her salon but additionally in a nightclub; when it’s Lillias White doing the singing, who cares? She makes even the gibberish of scat syllables piercingly particular.

Although Disher is the one who undergoes essentially the most dramatic change — he ultimately turns into the “Grand Exalted Giraw” of a Klanlike group — I discovered myself extra interested by Madame Sisseretta. Partially that’s as a result of she’s not allegorical; she’s a sensible businesswoman who understands that her vanishing commerce in hair straighteners and pores and skin lighteners is totally different solely by diploma from Crookman’s. Within the tune “Proper Quantity of White” — “Just a bit pinch of French/Only a slight contact of Dutch/Just a bit little bit of Brit” — she establishes the present’s themes and relevance with humor and theatrical specificity that’s largely absent elsewhere.

As “Black No Extra” continues its improvement course of, it can absolutely want to seek out extra respiratory house like that between the whimsy of the novel and its present chaotic gloom. (Aside from Qween Jean’s attractive costumes, the design is nearly punitively chilly.) I hope the authors can achieve this with out shedding what’s already stunning about this promising work — protecting in thoughts that magnificence, if not (based on “Black No Extra”) Blackness, is just pores and skin deep.

Black No Extra
Via Feb. 27 on the Pershing Sq. Signature Middle, Manhattan; thenewgroup.org. Operating time: 2 hours half-hour.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/15/theater/black-no-more-review.html Overview: In ‘Black No Extra,’ Race Is Pores and skin Deep, however Racism Isn’t

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