Wednesday, November 13, 2019

113 (2019-2020): Review: THE BLACK HISTORY MUSEUM . . . ACCORDING TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (seen November 12, 2019)

"To Be Black in America"

America’s dirty history of enslavement has been a subject of much dramatic interest lately, what with the big-screen dramas of 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and Harriet, as well as such theatrical efforts as Brandon Jacobs-Jenkin’s An Octoroon (updated from a pre-Civil war play), Underground Railroad Game, Behind the Sheet, Amazing Grace, and Slave Play
Kareem M. Lucas. Photo: Paula Court.
None, however, has so thoroughly explored the historical conditions of that horrific institution in its American embodiment (slavery elsewhere has figured in other works) as an unusual new immersive theatre experience called The Black History Museum . . . According to the United States of America, at Soho’s HERE Art Center.
Toni Ann DeNoble and Landon Woodson. Photo: Paula Court.
Part lecture/diatribe, part satirical sketch comedy (in the raw, parodistic vein of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum), part art installation, and part history lesson, this work for the Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative was conceived by Zoey Martinson, co-written by Martinson, Kareem M. Lucas, and Jonathan Braylock, with additional writing by Robert King and Shenovia  Large. King and Lucas also perform in the excellent nine-member ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles.
Telly Fowler. Photo: Maria Baranova.
In keeping with the work’s title, HERE has been transformed, top to bottom, and in almost every nook and cranny, into a museum, not simply of slavery but of the entire history of black struggle, strife, and success in America. In the vein of similar works, the small audience (of 30 or so), stands through much of the experience, moving from site to site within the building. Now and then, a limited number of visitors has a brief opportunity to rest its weary butts on something or other.
Tabatha Gayle, Marcia Berry, and Langston Darby. Photo: Paula Court.
The work begins in the lobby, where you’re invited to check (meaning simply hang on a rack) your coat and anything else you don’t want to lug around, as recorded voices are heard talking about what the speakers understand blackness to mean. The lobby walls are filled with artfully arranged words on racial issues, with frame-like windows in which will be seen the faces of the founding fathers as portrayed by several of the actors, their faces half in whiteface, with half-black, half-white wigs. 
Eury German, Latra Wilson (front), Telly Fowler, Taylor Boyland. Photo: Paula Court.
A Guide (Robert King), introducing himself as Jasper Sasparilla, “a magical mulatto,” appears, dressed in a red, conductor-like cap and jacket, to guide us, over the next two hours, through a maze of rooms, hallways, and spaces, each inch of which is covered with instructional materials and artifacts. We see videos of black history, including artistic performance; typewritten letters (with headphones on which they can be heard being read) documenting 19th and early 20th centuries relationships; a barber shop; and a tiny room memorializing hair braiding, with hair samples lining the walls. 
Love letters. Photo: Maria Baranova.
There also are peepholes, through which we view things like record labels advertising famous musicians; beautiful puppets of famous old-time band leaders, with a spotlight on the sole black one, Cab Calloway; a staircase lined with puffs of cotton, accompanied by information on slave labor and the cotton industry; images celebrating Barack Obama and his family; a closet dedicated to civil rights leader, and closeted homosexual, Bayard Rustin; an array of MAGA hats with a “Made in China” sign; and so on.
Toni Ann DeNoble, Langston Darby, Landon Woodson, Tabatha Gayle, Marcia Berry. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The audience also witnesses provocative, caricaturish sketches, one about the Founding Fathers (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, Richard Henry Lee) discussing the “all men are created equal” phrasing in the Constitution; another in which the audience participates in a TV game show on black history; and one in which cartoonish versions of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Sr., Bush, Jr., and Trump reveal their racist leanings. Other moments include placing the entire audience inside and out of a crudely constructed pen, watching the abuse of captives aboard a slave ship.
Mural by Brandan “B-mike” Odums. Photo: Maria Baranova.
There is no intermission, per se, but there is nearly a half hour in the middle when the audience is given the freedom to roam the crowded exhibition area on its own.  
Hair braiding. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Taken as a unified experience, the exhibit and performances, which incorporate call and response segments (Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!, etc.), dancing, music, gospel-like preaching, and soaring, sometimes angry, speechifying (in the gifted hands of Kareem Lucas as someone called the Descendant), are profoundly informative and emotionally disturbing. Although there may simply be too much to absorb in so brief a time, the packaging is theatrically entertaining and well-produced.
Obama and Trump Land. Photo: Maria Baranova.
So cutting is the condemnation of our nation’s racial oppression (gays and immigrants get some attention as well) that it’s impossible to dismiss the aggressively defiant rhetoric spit out toward the end by the fast-talking Descendant, dressed in gold-tinted, leather jacket and flat-brimmed baseball cap:

America is a lie
A fantasy
A wish
A hope
An idea
A thought
A clever story
A dream Built upon the foundation of genocide and enslavement.
Kareem M. Lucas (center), Latra Wilson, Telly Fowler, Taylor Boyland, Eury German. Photo: Paula Court.

HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue
Through November 24