BLACK NO MORE
February 26, 2022
Does changing your skin change you and your life circumstances? George S. Schuyler's 1931 Afrofutrist novel poses this riddle in his novel currently transformed into a musical with book by John Ridley, lyrics by Tariq Trotter and music by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, Daryl Waters--all associated with the legendary Philly band "The Roots."
Jazzed-up by a hard driving band positioned off-stage, Black No More bisects Harlem and Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan and the Savoy.
In the sizzling days of the 1930's, the Harlem Renaissance exploded, galvanizing music and dance, art and literature with glamour and pleasure. Whites and blacks tangled on dance floors and clubs, but any semblance of "equality" evaporated once the public exited the entertainment centers.
Opportunity for Blacks was limited, but for whites, it seemed unlimited. And despite surging "Black pride" and the advancement of Black art and culture, most doors were closed to non-whites.
Ironically, a scientist, Dr. Junius Crookman (generally played by Tariq Trotter but replaced by the talented Akron Watson) invents a machine that can turn melanated people white.
Natty and ambitious, Max Disher (the superb Brandon Victor Dixon) meets a beautiful white woman Helen Givens (Jennifer Damiano) in a Harlem club, and everything changes. He wants her, but to get her, or anything else he truly desires, Max needs to be white.
Part of a tight knit circle of Harlem artists and professionals, Max's best friend Bunnie (the power singer Tamika Lawrence) as well as the capciously voiced Madame Sisseretta (Lillian White) - her role is based on the Black hair product enterpreneur C. J. Walker and perhaps the amazing Black opera minstrel star Sissieretta Jones -- want Harlem to remain a bastion of black ingenuity and creativity.
Seduced by the prospect of "passing" Max takes the treatment and poof! He's white. Then of all things, he heads down to plantation land in search of the white woman who stole his heart and gets swooped into the role of head wizard. Along with the right to make millions spouting bigotry and racism, he gets the woman he loved as his wife. Weirdly, she doesn't want to be married to a white racist.
Meanwhile, Max's a tight knit circle of artists and professionals watch as Harlem loses its people, its businesses, its essence.
And so the story loops through lies and the abandonment of Harlem, the power of friends, truth and love.
Besides the off- the charts singing, and fine acting, Bill T. Jones' choreography invisibly punches up the dramatic action with kinesthetic punctuation marks. A renowned modern dance choreographer, Jones has a particular gift for coupling movement and gesture to the spoken word. An undeniable rhythm joins the actors to the text's sentiment. Much of the choreography emerges from pedestrian moves amped up in rhythmic palettes that energize Scott Elliott's direction.
Coming in at nearly 2:30 Black No More could use some snipping. Considering Eugene O'Neil's Long Day's Journey Into Night was successfully edited from 4 hours to under 2, then Black No More can amplify its impressive, muscular, musical core by slimming down.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis