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Theatre in Review: Broadbend, Arkansas (Transport Group)/The Black History Museum (HERE)

Top: Danyel Fulton. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Kareem M. Lucas, Toni Ann DeNoble, Landon Woodson. Photo: Paula Court.

On successive nights last week, I saw two very different shows about the black experience in America. Broadbend, Arkansas, presented at The Duke at 42nd Street, takes a minimalist approach, being a pair of linked solo musicals. The opener, "Just One Q," starts out, rather unpromisingly, as a Southern Gothic sketch about the decades-long rivalry between two ladies of a certain age. The fight plays out in a nursing home and is narrated by Benny, one of the orderlies. Bertha, a resident, many years earlier lost her husband to the much younger Julynne, who runs the place. The man in question, quaintly named Mister Greene Cotton, is dead, and the two ladies are vying to share his grave. The battle unfolds over a game of Scrabble -- hence the title.

If this rings a bell, it's possibly because you saw "Just One Q" at Inner Voices, the occasional festival of one-act solo musicals presented by the group known as Premieres. It wasn't particularly palatable in 2016, and time hasn't helped it -- especially the weird trope about monkeys grooming each other and the violent use of an iron for an act of revenge. This time out, however, librettist Ellen Fitzhugh has expanded the piece to intriguing effect, shifting the focus to Benny, who, what with two daughters and a wife in the local asylum, has plenty of trouble of his own. But it is 1961 and the Freedom Riders are heading through the South; Benny, who is weighed down with responsibilities, is, nevertheless, ineluctably drawn to participating in their historic trip. He first joins in as a fellow traveler, following them in his car; soon, he is on a bus, facing a firebomb, prison, and altercations with the police. As he puts it, he at last has become "A man with inspirin' stories t' bring home t' his children so they'll be strong enough t'....How will I put it to 'em...? T' get on the bus of their own times."

It's fascinating to see how Fitzhugh has amended her original script, originally a whimsical anecdote at best, giving it a much stronger direction as she brings Benny face-to-face with this need to participate in the life of his times. And Justin Cunningham, last seen as the Duke of Burgundy to Glenda Jackson's Lear, skillfully impersonates both of the warring nursing-home belles in addition to playing Benny, who comes to see that a life dedicated to something bigger than oneself is a life well lived. He switches between characters seamlessly, blending passages of direct address with the many arias composed by Ted Shen; he also sings like a dream, adding enormous power to the climactic passages, in which Benny confronts the racism of the world beyond his tiny Arkansas town. One of the best things about "Just One Q" is the showcase it provides for this exceptional talent.

That goes double for the second half, "Ruby," which has a libretto by the rising young playwright Harrison David Rivers, with additional material by Shen. The title character is one of Benny's daughters. It is decades later and Ruby, now a mother, is facing her son's arrest on a trumped-up charge; she runs to Julynne's grave to work out her terror. The moment that did Ruby in was when her boy, in custody, looked into her eyes and said, "See, Mama, this is what happens." It's a comment for which she has no real response.

I'll leave it to you to discover what happened to the family in the intervening years and why Ruby feels so attached to the deceased Julynne, but safe to say that she and her sister, Sam, grew up in tumultuous times, helping to integrate an all-white school and getting no thanks for it. Unlike the brazen Sam, who told the other kids that their absent mother was a backup singer for Diana Ross, Ruby has always tried to blend in: When asked in class what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would always repeat whatever the previous kid said, be it astronaut or circus ringmaster. But Sam has fled to another, apparently more glamorous, life, and Ruby is alone, a single mother with a lousy job and a son in trouble. As she muses, "Peculiar how us parents/In the darkest times that we face/The thing we do is tell our kids/This world will be a better place."

"Ruby," like "Just One Q," occasionally wears its heart on its sleeve a little too obviously, but Rivers gracefully arranges a meeting of past and present that suggests how much Ruby is the child of Benny. Shen's music, which manages to be both jazzy and contemplative, employs a kind of enhanced recitative approach, being tailored seamlessly to the text's progression of thought and providing brief, but powerful, bursts of melody for moments of emotional outpouring. Michael Starobin's orchestrations are both beautiful and transparent, thoughtfully designed to support the vocals. The production is simplicity itself, with the nearly bare space, conceived by scenic consultant Dane Laffrey, given untold depths thanks to Jen Schriever's canny use of low sidelight. Peiyi Wong's costumes are solid, and Walter Trarbarch's sound design is unforced and natural.

Best of all is Danyel Fulton's stirring, stunningly sung Ruby, whose cautious nature and deep self-knowledge don't prevent her from wondering, with considerable anguish, exactly when that better world is going to arrive. A generation after the Freedom Riders, why is her son unjustly relegated to a jail cell? It's a probing question, elegant asked in this deceptively simple piece, and Fulton and Cunningham are performers we should be hearing from again, and soon.

In contrast to Broadbend, Arkansas' intimacy, The Black History Museum is all over the place -- literally. Zoey Martinson, who conceived, co-wrote, and directed it, and her team have taken over the entirety of HERE, filling its stages and halls with a combination of museum exhibits, themed entertainment experiences, and revue sketches designed to bring the audience up to speed on the entire history of black America, from the slave trade to the Trump Administration. It's a tall order and, as you wander from one showcase to another, you may find your interest waxing and waning.

The best parts of The Black History Museum are the most museum-like. An opening audio montage, in which various interviewees discus the meaning of the word "black," is entirely engrossing. A recreation of a barber shop, an essential component of black society, provides brief bios of such fascinating figures as Daniel Hale Williams, who combined his tonsorial career with a distinguished record as a surgeon, and Alonzo Herndon, whose Atlanta Life Insurance Company helped him to become the city's first black millionaire. A display about Bayard Rustin, who crusaded for black and gay rights at a time when that needle was particularly difficult to thread, reminds us that he is eminently deserving of a play of his own; I only wish the video portion of this exhibit was easier to hear.

Otherwise, the sketches, by Martinson, Kareem M. Lucas, Jonathan Breylock, and Robert King (with additional material by Shenovia Large), are pretty scattershot, and Martinson lets her actors indulge themselves a little too much, especially in a bit about the Founding Fathers denying rights to blacks while writing the Declaration of Independence. (Another routine, about sensitivity training in the workplace, is too broad to have much effect.) The best of them is "The Reconstruction Game," an interactive game show designed to show how stacked the deck was against blacks following the Civil War, with every step forward followed by more steps back. Sometimes the enterprise is too elaborate for its own good: A sequence in which the audience is put in a slave pen to watch a dance about Africans captured by slave traders is a blatant piece of artifice utterly bereft of horror. There are also crowd-control and spatial issues: The slave pen, part of D'Vaughn Agu's rangy, generally inventive, set design, takes up so much space that, later on, it blocks the view of a rather better sketch, about how every president since Reagan (with one obvious exception) has worked to put increasing numbers of black men in prison.

The clear standout in the cast is Lucas, as the Descendant, a kind of narrator figure; he excels in the most powerful passage, a lengthy aria about black American history that weaves an astonishing number of literary references into the text. Francesca Harper's choreography is generally well-performed, especially by Latra Wilson. Ari Fulton's costume designs range from Revolutionary-era waistcoats to trendy outfits for an EDM sequence. Ayumu Poe Saegusa's lighting is generally solid, especially given the ground it must cover. Brittany Bland's projection design has its best moments when creating historical panoramas in The Reconstruction Game. Avi Amon's music and sound design add a great deal to the overall effect. The many visual art installations are by Brandan "B-mike" Odums, Shariffa Ali, Paula Champagne, Liliana Hendricks, Laetitia Ky, Yusef Miller, and Kalin Norman. Overambitious, overlong, and sometimes awkwardly staged, The Black History Museum is, nevertheless, packed with moments of revelation. At the very least, it reminds one of the richness and complexity of its subject; there's enough material here for hundreds of good plays. --David Barbour

(12 November 2019)

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