If you asked a handful of black playwrights to paint a picture of our communities in five minutes or less, would you end up with a complicated and textured work of art, or just a bunch of flat brush strokes that haven’t fully developed into a cohesive whole?
This was the central problem I wrestled with after leaving the Mixed Blood Theater’s newest production, Point of Revue, on stage now through Sunday, April 9. Point of Revue features 15 very short, newly commissioned plays, created by African American playwrights that included Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron, and Syl Jones. Led by songstress powerhouses Jevetta Steele, Thomasina Petrus, and Austene Van, the play’s music alone will carry you through the night, creating a narrative that is sometimes more compelling than the actual stories themselves.
“Interpretation of Being is just two or three pages long,” said Boston-based playwright Kirsten Greenidge in a phone interview. “It’s about an African American woman who’s in college and experimenting with art. She’s painting and her friends say, ‘This isn’t black enough.’ So the play asks: What is the responsibility of the African American artist? Is it to follow your creativity, or to meet the political expectations of your community?”
Greenidge’s other contribution to the show is At Sunday Dinner, one of its more provocative pieces. “It’s about an upper-middle class black family who adopt a kid later in his life, when he’s four or five, from the wrong side of the tracks. During the course of the play, they decide to give him back. So it’s about deciding who gets to be in their family and carry on their wealth,” said Greenidge.
Local playwright Syl Jones opened the show with Wooden You, a one-man dialogue between a black man and a white dummy. Jones calls the piece “new-age vaudeville,” and it certainly lives up to the title.
“The black man is operating the white dummy,” said Jones. “They start talking about slavery. The white dummy claims, ‘You got your hand stuck up my butt like I’m Michael Jackson.’ Then the black man says, ‘I can’t let you go, because you’re my livelihood.’ The white dummy becomes militant and starts singing ‘Go Down, Moses’ and all these other things.” While the slightly absurd playing with racial stereotypes is as refreshing as it is funny, actor Warren Bowles could have infused his performance with a little more comedic timing.
Unadulterated high comedy is achieved in the show’s most successful pieces: Down Low, by Robert O’Hara, and Secretary of Shake, by Elisa Davis. As the name suggests, Down Low tackles the issue of black men in the church who feel they cannot come out because of the pervasive persistence of homophobia in the community. While the subject, in and of itself, has been endlessly (and mostly insubstantially) exposed in the media lately, O’Hara manages to approach it from a new perspective, by having protagonists sing about their woes in a common church hymn. The result is as hilarious as it is subversive.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the subject of Secretary of Shake. Davis’ short play presents two dancers — one black, the other white — who are auditioning for a new reality TV show that will highlight Rice and her daily life. “We need some dance ambassadors,” Austene Van declares at one point. “It’s a shame she got to go out there and do her geo-political thang by herself.” This is an issue that has been ripe for artistic and critical exploration, but which has been, for the most part, overlooked.
That Point of Revue attempts to bring together all of these disparate viewpoints in a single night, on a single stage, is in itself revolutionary. Defining an entire, multifaceted community is not an easy (or, some would argue, feasible) task, yet many of the show’s pieces bear this burden with grace and humor. Depth is not one of Point of Revue’s assets, but it surely has breadth in abundance. Indeed, if a cursory view of the vast African American landscape is what you seek, Point of Revue will deliver.
Point of Revue is showing at the Mixed Blood Theater, 1501 S. Fourth St. in Minneapolis, through Sunday, April 9. For tickets or more information, call 612-338-0937 or visit www.mixedblood.com.