Thanks to the current Off Broadway scene I’ve spent the last week exploring Blackness and Judaism, in play, opera, and musical form. After a string of edgy, youth-oriented comedies including Bad Jews and Significant Other Joshua Harmon tries for the Big One in the mostly dramatic three-hour-long Prayer for the French Republic, and mostly succeeds. It takes some time to figure out who’s who and what the relationships are as the show toggles between 1944-1946, where a Parisian family that owns a piano store agonizes over missing relatives, and seventy years later, as their descendants, now including Sephardic Jews from Algeria, struggle with antisemitism as the noxious far right politician Marine Le Pen makes her move on the government. As the two parts gradually converge (under the sensitive direction of David Cromer) we’re privy to some lively, credibly expressed discourse about Israel, Palestine, Europe, and America, notably a profane and lengthy near-monologue from present-day daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou). There are numerous knockout moments in Harmon’s semi-autobiographical play, which suggests, sadly, that flight is a perpetual state for Jews in a world whose hostility toward them is a constant.
Between MJ, Clyde’s, and now an English-language opera of Intimate Apparel, Off Broadway at Lincoln Center, I see playwright Lynn Nottage more than my kids. But they couldn’t have grown that much in the 2.5 hours it took to view this winsome new production, a fusion of disciplines from the West Side’s arts powerhouse. Viola Davis, as Esther the seamstress in 1905 New York, and Corey Stoll as Mr. Marks, a Hasidic fabric salesman, were unforgettable in the original 2004 production, a fascinating social history. And so again are the characters this time (portrayed by Kearstin Piper Brown and Arnold Livingston Geis), united by respect but thwarted in love–however, Nottage’s libretto has built up the story in other ways, making them less central to the narrative than I had remembered. The recitative in Ricky Ian Gordon’s stirring music, repeated in supertitles on the back wall of the set, makes for slow going early on but by the second act the production, directed by Bartlett Sher, has found its footing. The show’s final stage image, of a broken but unbowed Esther at her sewing machine, retains its power, and is almost like time travel; women like her were unremarkable and unremembered, until a century later a playwright put her, and them, center stage.
Which brings us to Black No More (pictured above), a mashup of styles that moves blithely in and out of period, inspired by a 1931 Afrofuturist satire by the noted Black scribe George S. Schulyer, a socialist at the time of its writing who became a John Bircher and Civil Rights Act opponent later in life. There’s probably an angry, ironic musical in that but for now we have this story of unexpected transformation. The setting is Jazz Age Harlem, where Max Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon) is dissatisfied with the lot of Blacks, an attitude that his more civic-minded friends Buni (Tamika Lawrence) and Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), an activist, can’t help him shake. At a nightclub Max has a one-night affair with Southern belle Helen (Jennifer Damiano), a visitor from Atlanta. But seeing no future in that, or much of anything, Max volunteers to be the first subject of “Black No More,” a new process, invented by the Mephistophelian Dr. Junius Crookman, that turns blacks into whites. (He’s played by lyricist Tariq Trotter, who cowrote the lively music with Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters.) Renaming himself the more Caucasian “Matthew Fisher,” Max (whose tan jackets and white shirts, designed by Qween Jean, denote his change in pigment) relocates to Atlanta, where his caustic observations about Northern Blacks and soft segregation catch the ear of Reverend Givens (Howard McGillin). The good reverend also heads a KKK-type organization, and he assigns many a lucrative hate speech for Max to deliver. Impressed by the young man’s drive he also delivers up his daughter in matrimony…none other than Helen, the black sheep of the family for her outspoken progressivism. It’s speculative fiction, remember.
That would be enough to set up Act II but there’s more on the plate of book writer John Ridley, an Oscar winner for his adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. There’s Agamemnon sending Buni down south the locate and retrieve Max as Harlem collapses from a lack of Black folks, as many take to Crookman’s treatment. (The great Lillias White appears as a Black entrepreneur, a seller of lightening makeup and hair-straightening products, whose livelihood is threatened by this next step.) There’s Max, who has convinced his backers to embrace anti-science measures (ding ding ding goes the COVID-era audience), wrestling with his conscience as Helen spurns him and their forced union and her father and brother look to him to foment new prejudice against Jews and gays as the black population dwindles. There’s Buni meeting Helen…a dash of Grand Guignol…a lot. Too much, really; the focus is pulled from Max, who becomes less of a character and more of a mouthpiece as he sees the error of his ways, and while the hip-hop-ish score also absorbs jazz, blues, and gospel it doesn’t help set a tone. Clarity is lacking, with the production lurching this way and that, and the satiric edge is worn down to melodrama.
The more is more approach does yield dividends, however. Choreographer Bill T. Jones’ 21st century swing, with dancers overflowing the largest stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is delightful accompaniment. The lightbox set, the work of set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Jeff Croiter, forms new environments for each song. Director Scott Elliott doesn’t quite get Black No More to cohere but he does get the best from his performers, with Lawrence leading the ensemble with her piercing vocals, Damiano doing what she can with an unlikely role, and Dixon, a veteran of The Scottsboro Boys, Hamilton, and Shuffle Along, holding the production together with his immense charm and depth of feeling. I’ve seen better shows that were less memorable than this.