Off-Broadway Review: BLACK NO MORE: A NEW MUSICAL (The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on February 16, 2022

in Theater-New York


George Schuyler’s classic novel Black No More — written during the famous Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s — is a funny, absurdist, searing indictment of American White Supremacy ideology. It also pointedly skewers hierarchies based on physical appearance created during American slavery that privileged a white, European visage. Hierarchies that extended deep into the twentieth century and, some may argue, the twenty-first as well.

Tariq Trotter and company
Ensemble, Ephraim Sykes, Tamika Lawrence, Lillias White

Unfortunately, The New Group’s Black No More: A New Musical, currently playing at the Signature Theater in New York City, retains little of the elegant, satirical, pointed and courageous perspective from which the novel operates. While haphazardly appropriating elements of Schuler’s story, the show — even with an impressive score — currently stands as an extremely well-performed but murky attempt to bring a reckoning to America’s current issues with race, justice, societal expectations placed on women and, well, I guess anything else the creators could think of.

Ephraim Sykes, Tamika Lawrence, Brandon Victor Dixon, Theo Stockman, Jennifer Damiano
Leanne Antonio, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tariq Trotter, Oneika Phillips

The main premise of the novel is basically intact in this musical adaptation. Max Disher (a perfectly cast Brandon Victor Dixon), an ambitious young black man in early thirties Harlem, is frustrated with the limits placed upon his upward mobility due to his race. One night at a Harlem nightspot, he has a chance meeting with Helen, a beautiful white southern belle (heartbreakingly played by Jennifer Damiano). Max is immediately attracted to Helen but knows she and all she represents are out of his reach. Until the next morning, that is, when he hears a radio advertisement for Dr. Junius Crookman’s (a scene-stealing Tariq Trotter) “Black No More” machine — a device that can turn black people into white people. Max undergoes the transformation process and, now white, moves to Atlanta and Atlanta White Society — in search of Helen. In the process, he leaves behind Harlem, Blackness, social limitation and his best friend Buni (a multi-layered, gut-wrenching Tamika Lawrence). Or so he thinks.

Howard McGillin, Tracy Shayne, Jennifer Damiano, Brandon Victor Dixon
Ephraim Sykes and Ensemble

The show boasts thirty-five musical numbers. That’s a lot. In fact, parts of the second act went song to song to song with no scene/text in between. However, the first act had a more traditional structure with the songs mostly advancing the story. The structural change in the second act is fine as a creative decision, yet why it is changed is not clear, especially since that change was not consistent throughout the second act. This is just one of numerous choices which give the show an overall hodge-podge feeling with some elements intentionally on stage and some perhaps just thrown in to see what happens. All this with apparently little regard for the underlying unity of the storytelling.

Tamika Lawrence
Tracy Shayne, Jennifer Damiano, Brandon Victor Dixon, Theo Stockman, Howard McGillin

That said, the music is the best part of the production. Composed by Mr. Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters, with lyrics by Trotter, the music soars. It is affecting, powerful, lush, funny, stirring — utilizing multiple genres from musical comedy to R&B to gospel to rap to country to maybe even a bit of rock and roll. One first-act number entitled “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” is a moving revelation about the inordinate amount of responsibility often put on the shoulders of Black women — whether they want it or not. It is devastating in its honesty and equally devastating in its performance by Tamika Lawrence. Frankly, not enough can be said about her. Missed when she is not onstage, she is an accomplished singer with a huge vocal range equally matched by her emotional breadth and multiple gifts as an actress.

Tamika Lawrence, Brandon Victor Dixon, Theo Stockman, Howard McGillin
Ephraim Sykes and Ensemble

The choreography by Bill T. Jones is what one would expect from choreography by Bill T. Jones. It is intelligent, athletic, strong on technique, challenging, original, precise, fluid – in short, it is excellent. And the show’s dancing ensemble is equally as excellent in the execution of Mr. Jones’ work. However, that choreographic excellence often competes with or overpowers the show’s principals and story. In one number, Broadway legend Lillias White, who plays Harlem beautician and avatar for Black racial pride Madame Sisseretta, is practically lost within a sea of dancers, a decision that seems incongruent with an artist of Ms. White’s stature and appeal.

Lillias White and Ensemble
Brandon Victor Dixon, Howard McGillin, Zachary Daniel Jones,
Nicholas Ranauro, Edward Watts, Tariq Trotter

In a seismic shift in characterization from the novel, this singing Max Disher is mostly indirect in his approach to life. He vaguely wants better opportunities, undergoes racial transformation with little thought to negative consequences and spends the rest of the play genuinely baffled about how he got into his increasingly dangerous circumstances. Yet the show feels justified in giving him a very direct moment to voice the fundamental message of the piece. Late in the piece, house lights come up and Max directly addresses the audience, exhorting us to simply “Stop Fucking Hating.” But due to the indirect nature of Max’s character and the grab-bag nature of the show, this pivotal moment feels unearned. It plays more like Nancy Reagan’s oblivious dictum to “Just Say No” as opposed to Rodney King’s moving vocalization of the singular thought of the nation, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Theo Stockman, Tariq Trotter

Black No More is an earnest attempt to create a complex work about complex subject matter. It should be applauded for its efforts to challenge convention, break expectations and intermingle differing genres and performance styles. Clearly, the intention is to speak directly to today’s America about what they feel it quickly needs to change. Hopefully, the creators will tweak the piece by speaking with the assuredness and directness they envision, while finding the right balance of creative disciplines needed to birth that vision. With a little more rigor, clarity and focus, Black No More may one day become the complex, insightful, society-shifting musical work these artists are clearly capable of producing. And the “Black No More” machine, along with the racist practices that created it, can finally be banished to the dustbin of history where they belong.

photos by Monique Carboni

Black No More: A New Musical
The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd St.
Tues–Fri at 7:30pm; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at at 2
ends on February 27, 2022
for complete schedule and tickets, visit The New Group

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