"Black No More" is like combining Jonathan Swift's satire, H.G. Wells' science fiction and Douglas Turner Ward's racial farce, "Day of Absence" -- and tossing in a bit of Busby Berkeley for pizazz.
The result is a serious social commentary about American race ** relations, but it's also a free-wheeling romp with plenty of song and dance. An important and imaginative new work by playwright Syl Jones, it keeps you laughing and gets you riled up at the same time.
Subtitled "A Social Science Fiction Satire" and co-produced by Washington's Arena Stage and Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater and Mixed Blood Theatre Company, "Black No More" was inspired by the 1931 novel by George Schuyler. Extrapolating from the book, the play concerns an African-American scientist in the 1930s who invents a machine called the Erace-o-lator that can turn black people into whites.
Crookman, the scientist -- portrayed by a long-haired Wendell Wright as a seemingly gentle spirit who nonetheless wields a gun -- sees his invention as a way to dismantle racism through what he calls "chromatic emancipation."
Tellingly, however, he chooses not to undergo the procedure himself. Instead, the play's chief guinea pig is one of the scientist's former college students, Max Disher, played by Gregory Simmons as easygoing and intelligent but motivated primarily by self-interest.
With Max strapped into the E-race-o-lator, Crookman, who is manning the controls, dons dark glasses and breaks into a Stevie Wonder imitation. This escalates into a full-fledged production number with a chorus of male nurses in drag singing, "Everybody wants to be somebody else."
It's the first of several all-out song-and-dance routines (composed by Fabian Obispo and choreographed by Julie Arenal), which reach their peak with a wedding scene at the end of the first act.
This Busby Berkeley send-up -- complete with a dancing wedding cake -- celebrates the marriage of the now-white Max (conveyed by Simmons in a blond wig, but otherwise unchanged) to the daughter of a shifty preacher (a buffoonish Stephen Yoakam) who is also the leader of a Southern white supremacist organization.
Together, Max and his bride, Helen (Patricia Ben Peterson), plan to dismantle the organization from the inside out.
But even in the world of satire, nothing is as, well, black and white, as it seems. The supposedly liberal-minded Helen, for example, remains dependent on her obsequious maid (Shawn Judge), who teaches her a cruel lesson in what it's like to be black. And a beautician named Sisseretta Blandish (Isabell Monk) vows she'll never turn white but makes that vow while straightening a customer's kinky hair.
Monk's tough-minded, opportunistic character has another strong scene later, after the majority of the nation's blacks have taken Crookman's treatment. In a "Day of Absence"-like stroke, there's no one left to perform menial jobs. To fill the void, Sisseretta starts a school to train unemployed whites "how to be black."
"Black No More" is so episodic, it tends to go off on tangents, and you get the sense the playwright could have added scenes ad infinitum. As it is, the final production number seems rather abrupt. But its high spirits are in keeping with the antic quality that characterizes director Tazewell Thompson's production and reinforces the ludicrousness of racism.
That quality, in fact, is one reason the play works so well. It makes us laugh at something that should be laughable -- the realization that skin color is, indeed, only skin deep.
'Black No More'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 7
' Call: 202-488-3300
Pub Date: 5/09/98