A machine turns Black people white in the musical 'Black No More'
A new musical inspired by a satirical Afro-futurist novel called Black No More, opens off-Broadway Tuesday, presented by the New Group. Set during the Depression, both the book and the musical examine race in America with an outrageous plot device – an inventor comes up with a machine that turns Black people white.
In a dapper suit, Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of the Roots, appears center stage to set the scene. Sitting in a barbershop chair, he raps: "This is Harlem/The Big Apple's Core/Seventy or more years before there were any Apple stores."
Trotter wrote the lyrics and much of the music, which ranges from hip hop to R&B to jazz to folk. And he plays Dr. Junius Crookman, inventor of the Black No More machine, which will turn any Black person white — for $50. Trotter says, the doctor believes "this Black No More device is the solution to race relations in America. I think the line is 'to solve the American race problem as we know it.' But yeah, you know, I don't think a solution is ever reached."
And that is the Twilight Zone-like premise of Black No More, which features a script by Academy Award-winner John Ridley. The 1931 novel, by George Schuyler, has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward not just white supremacists and politicians, but thinly veiled figures from the Harlem Renaissance, which choreographer Bill T. Jones finds offensive. "When I read the novel, I must admit I was kind of pissed off about it," Jones says. "Yeah, I like bad boys, too. I don't like smart asses, of course, and particularly when they're Black ones making fun of Black people."
So, the challenge for the creative team, especially the writers, was to move the story from broad satire to something with a beating heart, says director Scott Elliott: "I think that what they've come up with is a really fascinating morality tale."
The central character, Max, is a man about town in Harlem, but he's been beaten down by racism in his job and romance. So, he chooses to go through the Black No More process and ends up in Atlanta, where he becomes a powerful figure in a white supremacist organization, called the Knights of Nordica.
"It is purely about perception in both its literal and figurative sense," says Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Max. "People see him as white. He sees himself as white, but he's still the same guy making the same mistakes. Like, nothing has changed."
To bring the point home, there is no physical transformation from Black to white onstage. Scott Elliott says he considered devices like white clothing or even white makeup but decided that would get in the way of the story.
"I thought it would be ridiculous ... because first of all, you can't really do it," explains the director. "It would always be a facade. Right? And how do you have a facade on your main character whose heart you want to locate, whose guts you want to locate?"
In a powerful second act moment, Max and Crookman – who's become white and goes by the name Blaquemun – meet and sing a song called "It Takes One to Know One." As the number progresses, the entire ensemble – male and female, black and white – enter the stage, wearing the exact same blue costumes. "Now, they're all sort of mirroring each other and wondering, 'who are you?' " says choreographer Bill T. Jones. "So, I think that is a brilliant moment of the satire, but also something that musical theater can do with great verve. I'm very proud of that moment."
Tamika Lawrence plays Max's friend Buni, who travels from Harlem to Atlanta to convince him to reveal his true identity. She says the show is emotionally engaging, with a love story and tragedy, but it also touches on broader themes: "I think it makes us ask a lot of questions about ourselves and the roles that we play in this American capitalistic, sometimes hedonistic and hegemonic society."
And while the show has ambitions for Broadway, Tariq Trotter hasn't watered down his own sense of sociopolitical commentary, which he brings to the Roots and his solo work, in the songs for the show. He says, "I've been able to stand on the same principles that I always have as an artist."
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