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Black No More

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 15, 2022

Leanne Antonio, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tariq Trotter,
and Oneika Phillips

Photo by Monique Carboni
In "The Negro-Art Hokum," a controversial essay published in 1926, African America writer George S. Schuyler declared, "Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same." Five years later Schuyler's Afrofuturist book "Black No More," which took satirical aim at the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, furthered this premise, and in the process revealed the hypocrisies, fallacies, and malignancy of white supremacy. The New Group's exhilarating new musical adaptation retains the novel's relevance, and it is the rare show that appeals to the intellect, the heart, and the soul.

With a book by John Ridley (whose adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave won an Academy Award), lyrics by Tariq Trotter, and music by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters, Black No More follows the basic outline of Schuyler's original. The musical takes place in Jazz-Age Harlem and centers around Max Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon), who believes his racial identity is holding him back. One night while stomping at the Savoy with his pal Buni (Tamika Lawrence)–changed from Bunny, his male friend, in the novel–and their poet/activist friend Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), Max falls instantly in love with Helen (Jennifer Damiano), a white woman. Helen and her brother Ashby (Theo Stockman) are visiting from Atlanta, and while Helen claims to be a free spirit, she is trapped by her family's racist, ultra-conservative values.

Meanwhile, Dr. Junius Crookman (Trotter) has developed a scientific process to change the pigmentation of a Black person's skin and alter their facial features, giving the appearance of a Caucasian. Max is one of the first subjects to undergo the transformation and in no time he changes his name to Matthew Fisher and hops a train to Atlanta. There he receives the attention of Reverend Givens (Howard McGillin), the Grand Exalted Giraw of the Knights of Nordica (a KKK facsimile), who also happens to be the father of Helen. Not only does Givens supply Max/ Matthew with his daughter's hand in marriage, he bestows his Exalted title upon him.

Back in Harlem things are pretty grim since so many of the residents have taken advantage of Crookman's Black-No-More treatments. Even the local entrepreneur, Madame Sisseretta (Lillias White), is feeling the pinch. Madame Sisseretta (a parody of millionairess Madame C.J. Walker) had made a fortune on a line of skin lighteners and hair straighteners. As she says, "Even those among us with the most ethnic pride weren't beyond taking the edge off our blackness." Crookman, in Madame Sisseretta's rather hypocritical view, has taken whitening to the extreme and is destroying the local economy. Max, she believes, is the only hope in turning things around. She orders Buni to go to Atlanta to retrieve Max, whose predicament is growing more and more precarious.

I won't reveal the musical's ending, but it does not have the sardonic bite of Schuyler's conclusion. At the end of the novel, there is a new color line drawn, and biologically white people, who want to distinguish themselves from the Black-No-Mores, have taken to darkening their skin with dyes and stains.

If the musical downplays the trenchant political commentary while emphasizing the melodramatic elements, it makes up for it in dazzling theatricality. The creative team has said that the show is intended to reflect the past, present, and future of Black experiences and culture. This is evident in the music and, most especially, in the choreography by Bill T. Jones. The score is primarily hip hop (and because of Trotter's work with Lin-Manuel Miranda, comparisons to Hamilton are inevitable), but it embraces a range of styles and historical genres as well. There are, for instance, jazz numbers, blues songs, and strains of gospel throughout. There is a lot of music, but it emerges effortlessly from the book scenes.

Jones's choreography, melding hip hop and Lindy Hop, perfectly captures the exuberance of the swing era with a contemporary attitude. In a nod to futurity, the movement also includes a great deal of mechanistic angularity–a flexed foot, a sharply bent elbow, a contracted pelvis. Aided by Jeff Croiter's marvelous lighting, this is a show that seems to be in perpetual motion. (Derek McLane's simple set design and Queen Jean's costumes also playfully merge period references with atemporal touches.)

Tamika Lawrence
Photo by Monique Carboni
Directed by Scott Elliott, the show boasts one of the strongest casts in recent memory. Dixon is excellent, and he expertly delivers the hip-hop songs and brings just the right combination of pathos and mischievousness to his role. Lawrence is heartbreakingly good, and she provides the moral compass in this topsy-turvy world. She plies her powerhouse voice to songs such as "Who's Gonna Take the Weight" as well as the show's closing number, "Victory for Love."

White is similarly thrilling, and she seems to be channeling Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. She scats and belts up a storm in bluesy songs like "This is Harlem" and "What's a Sister To Do?" Singing the counterpart, "What's a Brother To Do?," Sykes drops the character's firebrand fa├žade and bears the scars of centuries-old racism. It's a deeply moving moment.

As the family of Southern bigots, Damiano, Stockman, McGillin, and Tracy Shayne (as the family matriarch) are suitably villainous, but what makes them even scarier is their humanness.

In his gleeful attempt to destroy lives and an entire social order, Crookman is a cross between the Emcee from Cabaret and Mr. Applegate from Damn Yankees. Unfortunately, while Trotter applies his adroit musicality to good effect, he is not nearly sinister enough. Indeed, rather than offering a threatening presence, he tends to get lost in the swirl of the staging.

Trotter, however, and the rest of the creative team have crafted an ambitious and daring new musical. In its unflinching critique of the "American race problem," Black No More, like the novel on which it is based, has the power to agitate and get under the skin.

Black No More
Through February 27, 2022
The New Group
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: