“Whoo, that was some heavy shit,” our guide says after leading us through 400 years of African-American history. It was hard to disagree. Every inch of HERE Arts Center has been transformed into an immersive “theatrical museum” – part theater, part museum — an impressively ambitious collaborative effort by a veritable army of African-American artists. “The Black History Museum, According to the United States of America” is illuminating, depressing, enraging, amusing, inspiring. It is overwhelming, in both good ways and bad.
Over the course of more than two hours, the audience is ushered to different playing areas to watch a series of scathing satirical scenes. In the first, five Founding Fathers, portrayed in half-whiteface by the all-black cast, figure out how to exclude black men from “all men are created equal.”
“This Declaration could be misconstrued by some as an emancipation act for all enslaved people,” says Benjamin Franklin (Marcia Berry.)
“But the year is 1776,” says John Adams (Landon Woodson). “Who even owns slaves anymore?”
Franklin, Jefferson, and the others – everybody except John Adams – raises his hand.
Other satirical scenes later in the show involve recent U.S. presidents reinstating slavery through mass incarceration; and a diversity training session in which the white office workers express their own grievances. “One time I was told that I wasn’t invited to a coworker’s cookout because I voted for Trump and ‘support racist policies,’” complains one white employee (portrayed by Langston Darby). “I felt like I was being discriminated against for my political affiliation, which almost feels worse than racism.”
But the audience is also escorted to art installations and history exhibits, including artifacts: a wooden structure that makes for a haunting slave ship; a black barber shop; a staircase full of cotton plants and sobering labels about the cotton trade; reproductions of actual love letters between slaves (“If I never see you again, I hope to see you in Heaven”); an exhibit about hair braiding and its significance in the black community; an exhibit on women in the various empowerment movements, in which we look through peepholes at visual portraits of specific heroines of history; a booth covered with old movie posters and peepholes to view a live performer in a mirrored dressing room; even a closet devoted to a small exhibition of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Just in case you didn’t get the joke, a wall label offers Rustin’s “Closeted History” (which is too clever by half, since Rustin, a gay man, was not in the closet.)
We also experience modern dance, a game show parody, video projections, poetry and polemics on Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Black Codes, Black Lives Matter and political rallies, black billionaires. It’s too much to enumerate.
And, in truth, it’s also almost too much to endure. This is not just because so much of the history is ugly. There is no intermission, and almost no opportunity to sit down. Unlike a conventional museum, visitors cannot set their own pace. In its effort to be exhaustive, “The Black History Museum” threatens to feel exhausting.
A simple fix might help largely avoid that feeling. Right now, the audience is given a set time to explore some half dozen of the show’s most conventionally museum-like exhibits in the downstairs hallway. These exhibits are all worthwhile, but we’re soon led upstairs for yet more poetry, polemic, satiric scenes, video and dancing, final thoughts, etc. Presenting the exhibits in the middle of the show made the show feel too long. If the order were changed, and audience were set loose on the exhibits at the very end rather than in the middle, we would be able to spend as much time — or as little time — as we wanted with them. This would be in keeping with our expectations of what museum-going means — that we set our own pace..
It’s important to emphasize that “The Black History Museum,” is not really a museum, or not only one. The guide is not really a guide, but rather a splendid performer. Actually, there are in effect two guides, both stand-outs, and opposite in tone.
At the outset of the show, Robert King, who dresses like an old-fashioned movie usher in red hat and jacket with gold cord, introduces himself to us as Jasper Sasparilla, a Magical Mulatto – which, he explains, is like “the Magical Negroes in films, helping and guiding the protagonist toward success, in a selfless and mystical way” but for Off-Broadway theater. We were handed a black card to make everybody feel more comfortable – meaning, the white people. “I have personally consulted with the black community’s secret council, and have obtained permission to grant all pigment-deficient members of this audience an honorary black card.”
The other guide is Kareem Lucas, who portrays The Descendant, and looks bronzed, as if a statue. He performs his own poetry as a kind of narrative throughout the show. It is stark, pointed and, like much else in “The Black History Museum,” memorable:
Black history according to my ancestors
Is fighting for a seat at the same table
Where you are being consumed
Click on any photographs by Paula Court to see them enlarged.
The Black History Museum According to the United States of America
Conceived and directed by Zoey Martinson, and created in collaboration with poet and performer Kareem M. Lucas, sketch writer Jonathan Braylock, additional writing by Robert King and Shenovia Large, visual artist Brandan “B-mike” Odums, dramaturge Arminda Thomas.
Scenic design by D’Vaughn Agu, costume design by Ari Fulton, sound design and composed by Avi Amon. Choreographed by Francesca Harper, lighting design by Ayumu Poe Saegusa, projection design by Brittany Bland, animation by Daria Amai Shelton, cinematography by Katherine Castro, gaffer Justin W. King, visual artists Paula Champange, Kalin Norman, Shariffa Ali, Laetitia Ky and Yusef Miller; researcher A.J. Muhammad
Marcia Berry as Benjamin Franklin / HR Rep
Taylor Boyland as Dancer
Langston Darby as Thomas Jefferson / White Employee
Toni Ann DeNoble as Game Show Host
Telly Fowler as Dancer
Tabatha Gayle as John Hancock / White Employee Eury German Dancer
Robert King as The Guide
Kareem M. Lucas as The Descendant
Latra Wilson, Dancer
Landon Woodson as John Adams / DJ / Preacher
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with no intermission
The Black History Museum is running through November 24, 2019