Reviewed by Mayank Keshaviah RECOMMENDED
“We’ve been silent too long.”
An African-American man dressed in a black hoodie and black pants enters and begins dancing to J. Cole’s “Be Free.” His movements are hip-hop, but also ballet. Then another joins him. And another. Soon seven men’s bodies are moving as one — joy, pain, anger, protest, and resilience flowing through them. One man carries a large American flag, lamenting, “This flag is heavy.” Another chimes in that it “drips with red drops of hypocrisy.”
Those red drops launch us into a vignette about the thousands of black men who fought in the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, and in every other American war through the present day.
“Justice in my country failed me the night I was killed.”
From tasked with killing to being killed, the show smoothly segues into the black lives that have not mattered enough throughout our history: Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown….
“We are all one bullet from being another hashtag.”
Part history lesson, part choreopoem, part barbershop banter, this show, written and directed by Brandon Rainey, is mostly scripted but often feels pleasantly improvisational. It also seamlessly blends a number of different theatrical styles as it explores the psyches of black men in America.
“We are more than our bodies, no matter how good they may look.”
Those bodies conjure up black dance moves, black sexuality, and black masculinity, as what is a choreographed performance one minute turns into “choppin’ it up with the brothas on the stoop” the next. Rainey’s writing and direction foster a communal atmosphere in which audience members are encouraged to respond to the issues explored on stage.
The ensemble members — Courtland Trapp, Braulio Archer, Dion Henderson, Justin Walker, Egypt Duncan Ali, Brandon Archer, and Rainey himself — are identified solely by the numbers on their chests, a powerful statement in itself. Additionally, the actors’ infectious energy, their effortless interaction and their absence of distinct identities create a group chemistry that, appropriately, makes the message more powerful than the messengers.
The show, however, does not simply critique those external forces responsible for trauma in the black community. Rainey equally trains his sights on issues endemic to the community itself, such as absentee fathers, violent masculinity and misogyny.
“There are kids out here wondering, ‘What did I do to drive my daddy away?’”
Rainey’s language, with its echoes and repetitions, has a driving rhythm that allows for a natural flow through seemingly disparate topics. Only when major costume changes take place does the action grind to a halt and create some dead air. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise successful piece that strives to create a “safe space” for black consciousness. What’s more, many people outside the black community will appreciate the performance and benefit from hearing these truths laid bare.