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Theatre in Review: Master (Foundry Theatre at Irondale Center)

Mikéah Ernest Jennings. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Master is a museum exhibit, a memorial service, and a family drama -- and thoroughly haunting on all three counts. You arrive at the Irondale Center to find a sign saying, "Welcome to Uncle Jimmy's Celebration of Life. Gallery is upstairs." (For a second, I feared I had made an enormous mistake, traveling to Brooklyn only to intrude on the mourning of strangers. It wasn't the last time I would feel utterly disoriented in the ninety minutes that followed.) You are greeted by a very nice woman of a certain age, who, as it happens, will play a central role in the evening's experience, a thoroughly original invention that welds the political to the personal in a way that many playwrights might envy.

Master is built around the fictional James Clemens -- "Uncle Jimmy" to you -- an artist who, working in various media, devoted the bulk of his career to "illuminating" The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Conceiving an artwork for each chapter of the novel, we are told, he "attempted to righteously complete the character of Jim" (whom he saw as unfinished). The effort consumed him for the better part of four decades. (For the record, Uncle Jimmy is said to have died in 2016, at the age of 72.) The first part of Master is spent wandering Irondale's voluminous main space, studying a collection of Uncle Jimmy's works, many of which have survived in fragmented form, along with a collection of his personal effects. As we learn, for Uncle Jimmy, Mark Twain's novel was the demon that he spent his life trying to exorcise.

The exhibition, which was created by the visual artist Wardell Milan, working in collaboration with the playwright, W. David Hancock, conjures both Uncle Jimmy's character and much of twentieth-century black American life and culture. A collage of celebrity photos from Ebony and Jet Magazine includes Diahann Carroll, Redd Foxx, Haile Selassie, and "campus queens from black colleges." Beneath it is a collection of family photos that, in their anonymity, prove to be strangely evocative. (As in Enda Walsh's Rooms, the creators of Master grasp how eerily affecting such found objects can be.) An exhibit of what is supposedly Mark David Chapman's copy of The Catcher in the Rye sits on a podium; pick up the attached telephone and you hear a collage of news reports on real-life shootings, including the Columbine massacre. A small statue, depicting the character of Little Ricky from I Love Lucy as a tar baby, is said to be "all that survives of The End Times -- a larger installation -- where broken characters from situation comedies inhabit a refugee camp based on Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights." One of the most fascinating (to me) items is a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, published from the 1930s to the 1960s, which advised black travelers of restaurants, bars, hotels, and private guest houses that would welcome them.

The effect of these fragments is to establish in one's mind's eye a powerful sense of Uncle Jimmy as a distinct individual, an artist wrestling with history. Every detail feels carefully considered, right down to the artist's last name, which he shares with the writer known as Mark Twain, and the Uncle Jimmy moniker which sounds uncomfortably like a slave name, or an allusion to Uncle Remus, the most prominent house slave in American literature. No one says it in so many words, but one might legitimately conclude that, for Uncle Jimmy, the entirety of twentieth-century black culture constituted a kind of neurotic adjustment to the facts of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Eventually, the lady from the welcome table invites us to sit down. She is Edna Finn, Jimmy's widow; she met Jimmy when she was trying to write a novel about Huck Finn's mother -- whose story, she notes, remains untold. Rescuing Jimmy and his son, James, from living in their car, she sacrificed her own creative ambitions, waiting on tables and cleaning houses to keep her new family together. "Slave wages," she says, sending a ripple of uncomfortable laughter through the room.

Despite Edna's determination to maintain an upbeat tone, darker emotions keep intruding, including her resentment of James -- who, she notes in his presence, sold the one painting his father gave him as a gift. She also mourns Paige, the daughter she had with Jimmy, who became her father's pet and confidante before unexpectedly dying. In Anne O'Sullivan's meticulously shaded performance, there isn't a word uttered by Edna that doesn't resonate with multiple meanings and unspoken emotions. More than once, a carefully concealed bitterness slips out: "My husband gave in and finally agreed to a retrospective of his work. This was 2003 -- long before blackness came into vogue again." The slight pause between the last two words of this sentence contains a fury that Edna cannot admit, at least in public, as does her discussion of her apparently inability to kill herself, in which she asks, "Why does my need for self-preservation always trump my grief?"

Following a brief, unheard, but clearly savage conference with Edna, James takes the stage and quickly admits that he and his father were estranged. "Dad's blackness got in the way," he says, before launching into an account of a childhood marked by separation from his mother ("I made you out of river mud and twigs," he was told) and, all too often, spent on the road with his father, absorbing his ideas and his rage at an unjust world. "There was a panel on plantation art at MoMA and my father showed up in a Confederate flag tee-shirt -- just to be an asshole," he says, visibly trying not to wince at the memory. James was also there when Uncle Jimmy crashed an art show in Harlem, drunkenly smashing sculptures on display. And he was taken out of school for long road trips "up and down the Lewis and Clark trail, etched like a test scar in a genocidal nation," where they would wander through fields, the father asking his son bizarre questions like, "Can genocide be sensual?"

And what becomes blazingly clear the longer he talks is that, love him or hate him -- and James does both -- Uncle Jimmy has indelibly imprinted himself on his son. Recalling how he used to read Huck Finn under the covers at night, "like porn," he offers a mordant assessment that could have come from his father: "In school, they taught us that by leaving Jim's wife and children scattered, Twain was speaking to the injustice of slavery. But, honestly, that's bullshit. Jim ends the novel like a trained monkey -- hiding in the shed -- lost in a state of blissful amnesia about his kin. Twain doesn't even allow his n----- to grieve."

James' speech builds in intensity, climaxing in a free-flowing flood of images and associations that recalls Allen Ginsberg in his Howl days. In what may be the season's first true tour de force, the actor Mikéah Jennings is stunning throughout, fielding James' violently conflicting emotions to create a portrait of a black man brutally lumbered by having to carry the burden of his father's pain; both father and son, whatever their conflicts, struggle to find a place for themselves in a culture riddled with false assumptions and toxic lies about race.

In addition to obtaining superb performances from her two leads, the director, Taibi Magar, has orchestrated the entire experience flawlessly, letting the deeply evocative material speak for itself. Marsha Ginsberg is the credited set designer; I assume her main contribution involved creating a workable ground. Mikaal Sulaiman, the sound designer, surely had a hand in creating the soundtracks that accompany some of Uncle Jimmy's artworks; John Narun's projections augment one or two of the installations. Tilly Grimes' costumes and Thomas Dunn's lighting are perfectly fine.

Hancock has used this mixed-media approach in some of his earlier works; others -- including Christopher Chen, whose play Caught, produced last season by the Play Company, combined artwork with drama for purposes of his own -- have experimented with this format. Milan's exhibit allows us to imagine Uncle Jimmy even before the evening's twin monologues fill in the blanks of his story and reveal a complex family saga in which unresolved troubles are passed from generation to generation. James' speech ends on a powerful note of self-assertion. We can only hope that he can make it stick. He wouldn't be the first black man to discover that history can drive you crazy. -- David Barbour

Note: Since this review was published, I have reliably learned that the design team was intimately involved in the creation of the exhibition and its artworks.

(6 June 2017)

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