The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: TNG’s Black No More
Attempting to rewind the chains that bind, The New Group runs in from all sides with the fantastically complicated Black No More, a new musical that expands the smooth, dark edge with a clear and conscious delivery. With a compelling book by John Ridley (“12 Years A Slave“), smart lyrics by Tariq Trotter (who also plays the pivotal character, Dr. Junius Crookman), and some mostly invigorating music by the team of Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters, the creators come together with clarity, digging deep into an abstract complicated idea, even when some of the rhythms fail to attach. The question that is asked is what would the outcome be if we found a manufactured way to try to “artificially solve the American race problem“. But will it really? one might continue to ask.
The show tries with all its heart and soul to deliver on its promising premise, flying with force in all directions, but not without a few pivotal problematic moments falling on the sidelines. Utilizing the electrifying title from the classic and complicated 1931 novel by George S. Schuyler about Black people passing as white, the show determinately struts and dances the issues out with a high energy deliverance that keeps us all tuned in.
It tries to find its smart steps in the intricate choreography, formulated by the obviously talented Bill T. Jones (CSC’s Carmen Jones). It reaches high and wide, but rarely finds its smooth and expertly physical formulation. It appears awkward at times, when it should be creatively fluid and graceful. Which is a fundamental flaw of Black No More, as it reminds us constantly of the artificiality of the premise and its internal disconnect.
Fascinatingly, Schuyler’s novel “Black No More” doesn’t necessarily appear that strongly in the musical translation. The book rarely shows us characters that we would like or admire, let alone care about, but here in the structure of this new musical, the team seems to be trying to uncover a very different approach to the souls that inhabit the stage. They stay complicated but more aligned, definitely leading us down a sympathetic pathway that leans to one side, with the villains of the story more easily identifiable and almost comically clear.
Inside The New Group’s Black No More at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the show presents a choice, centered around a breakthrough device brought forth by a complex figure, Dr. Junius Crookman (Trotter). Designed with a strong visual appeal by the creative team that includes: set designer Derek McLane (Broadway’s Burn This); costume designer Qween Jean (Off-Broadway’s On Sugarland); lighting designer Jeff Croiter (Broadway’s Bandstand); and sound designer Nevin Steinberg (MCC’s The Wrong Man), the air and space work. The magical chair sitting center stage, we are told, can lighten a person of color’s skin, giving anyone of African descent the opportunity to become, or at least appear, identical to a Caucasian. We, and all those that are being sold the idea, are told that this procedure will change the makeup of the country, eliminating the race problem in America by eliminating the visual disparity. Most of us though, including a few wise listeners of the sales pitch can see the fundamental flaw. Privilege always requires a pecking order, even if it has to be reorganized to keep the hierarchy in place. There will always be a race problem in America, even if the definition needs to be altered by those wanting to hold onto their power.
Max is the first man to step forward to try out the machine, and the outcome is determined, deliciously choreographed by all involved. Beautifully portrayed by the charming Brandon Victor Dixon (Broadway Center Stage’s Next to Normal; NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar), the impulse for him to step forward is superficial but required. He has fallen, quite instantaneously in forbidden love, like the star-crossed lovers of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet, to a rebellious white woman named Helen, complicatedly played by the appealing Jennifer Damiano (Broadway’s Next To Normal; American Psycho). They flirt and engage seductively on a Harlem dance floor one fateful evening, much to her brother’s disapproval. The moment fires up the drama and sets the Shakespearean plot spinning forward into a solid and dangerous racial divide. It illuminates the structure and the intent with a strongly fueled steam thrusting the plot forward and setting the ball in motion. It rings true, maybe more true than what follows, but in that instant, we feel the rhythm rise up from the floorboards demanding to be heard.
Damiano’s Helen, though, is one complicated structural device, being all things demanded by the story’s confines without much care for the complexities. Helen demands transparency from Max while asking none for herself. She believes she has married a privileged white man, as racist as her KKK-inspired father, the Reverend Givens and his wife, played well within the confines by Howard McGillin (Broadway’s Gigi) and Tracy Shayne (TNG’s The True), But her brother, Ashby Givens, deviously portrayed by Theo Stockman (Atlantic’s This Ain’t No Disco), is not pleased by the shift in familial power. He stomps and pouts, taking on the role of Tybalt with an unquestionable delight, basically twisting his non-existent mustache with a fiendish delight.
It’s clear where this musical is going, as it steers itself around and away from Schuyler’s novel into something else entirely. Director Scott Elliott (TNG’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) does his duty well, finding the Shakespearean tragedy within and keeping the energy flowing, but struggles with making it all feel entirely honest. The score, in general, helps keep the rhythm captivating, moving stylishly from one genre to another depending on who is standing out front. It generally works, but not without some slips here and there, particularly when it comes to the Reverend and his lot. The sound, thanks to some solid work by music director and dance music arrangements Zane Mark (2ST’s Smart People); music coordinator Kristy Norter (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale); and musical supervision, orchestration, and vocal arrangements Daryl Waters (Broadway’s The Cher Show), is fluid and personal, yet somewhere inside the long list of songs and musical moments, the opportunities seem infinite but just out of reach. It keeps us fairly close, but not held as tightly as we had initially hoped we would be.
One of the best moments is the appearance of Lillias White (Broadway’s The Life; PMP’s Half Time) stylishly grabbing the spotlight whenever she is given the space to shine. Her character grabs hold of the Harlem nightclub with distracting ease while making the complicated stance understandable in her Harlem beauty salon scene. Taken wisely from the novel, the moment unmasks the conflict, that she is selling a paralleled procedure, one that straightens the hair of Black women in their own abstract way of distancing themselves from their African roots. The guilt-ridden dilemma unearthed by White’s Madame Sisseretta does more for this show’s purpose than almost every other scenario presented. Even the exemplary fine work of the underused magnificence of both Tamika Lawrence (Broadway’s Caroline or Change) as the solid Buni and Ephraim Sykes (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) in the too undefined role of the rebel Agamemnon.
Buni, luckily, is not the equal to Schuyler’s more complex character, Bunny, on which Lawrence’s character is based. Here she is clearly the strongly defined moral compass of the lot, straddling the dynamics with an almost unbelievably centered persona. She’s the conscientious core that tries with all her heart to find connection in an inhospitable world. Lawrence unsurprisingly delivers the code with a strong-voiced power, I only wish she, and Sykes’s character, Agamemnon lived up to the promise suggested in their formulation.
Harlem’s soul, it seems has almost disappeared, much like its citizens, as it’s citizens now don’t have to be ghettoized and exploited by those in control. With almost everybody now passing as Caucasian, the shift within America has forced the restructuring of the politics of repression, pushing those higher up in power to refine who sits down below.
The idea is not as shocking as it might have been in Schuyler’s more harsh portrayal of humanity and the Ku Klux Klan, as we watch a similar delineation playing out right now in Florida, Texas, and Idaho. There will always be someone of white privilege, be it Florida’s Governor DiSantas or the ruling class of Texas and Idaho, who will work hard at creating fear of the ‘other’, using difference for political gain.
Schuyler, I soon discovered, wasn’t an easy writer to embrace from any angle. He wrote the provocative “Black No More” novel but also lobbied against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, to name just one contradictory stance. But played out on the stage, in a mostly clever reinterpretation of his novel, the morality and the conflict deliver. It raises a number of solid questions, and even if the answers aren’t constructed completely, the overall dynamic sings and (awkwardly) dances forward with a Shakespearean energy. .