Everything about “Black No More” sounded promising – a new musical inspired by a 1931 satiric novel of the same name that imagines what America would be like if there were a machine that could turn black people white, starring a powerhouse Broadway cast (Lillias White! Brandon Victor Dixon! Ephraim Sykes!) and put together by an exciting creative team (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots, John Ridley, screenwriter for ‘12 Years A Slave,’ choreographer Bill T. Jones!) The production I saw at Signature, produced by the New Group, was undeniably entertaining at times; it was occasionally thought-provoking. But it was mostly…still just promising.
As the musical begins, we are in Harlem at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, where we meet Dr. Junius Crookman (portrayed by the show’s lyricist and co-composer Tariq Trotter), who explains how his invention (which looks like a barber’s chair) could solve the race problem, by artificially inducing vitiligo (the skin condition that Michael Jackson had), and turning black people white. “How is it, then, Dr. Crookman, you ask, are you able to accomplish what the Lord Himself cannot?” he continues. “The answer is simple. The Good Lord is not a Howard Man.” This line made me laugh. (Few others did.)
Max Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon) becomes Dr. Crookman’s first test subject. Max had gone to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem with two friends Buni (Tamika Lawrence) and Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), and there fallen instantly in love with a white woman named Helen (Jennifer Damiano), who was visiting from Atlanta. But Helen’s brother Ashby (Theo Stockman), also up from Atlanta, notices the two making eyes at one another and breaks it up, because he’s a racist. Max undergoes the Black No More treatment “to no longer have my skin stand between who I am, and what I want.” And what he wants, even more than a white woman, is more money.
Max turns white (the production wisely chose to leave his face alone, suggesting a change only with a lighter-colored suit). He changes his name to Matthew Fisher, moves to Atlanta, and is recruited by the Rev. Givens (Howard McGillin) to join his white supremacist organization, the Knights of Nordica – and then the Reverend anoints his new acquaintance its Grand Exalted Giraw. “You are the best thing to happen to white people since God gave us Black people to hate,” the reverend says. Not only that, Givens happens to be Helen’s father, and he insists that Helen marry this unknown white man. Helen doesn’t recognize Matthew as Max, and only marries him to save up money to escape her racist family.
Perhaps needless to point out, little of this plot makes any sense. I suppose such a mess of preposterous and murky motives is more forgivable in a show labeled a satire. But the satirical aspects are often themselves fairly muddled, and are soon overtaken by even more implausible events, and a turn to the sentimental and the tragic that feels tacked on from a different show.
The source material for “Black No More,” the 1931 novel by George S. Schuyler (whose full title is“Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940”), is a cynical and merciless satire, not just about white racists, but about black heroes, including such revered figures as W.E.B. DuBois. (A scathing passage, which wouldn’t fly today, and probably didn’t much fly in 1931: “While a large staff of officials was eager to end all oppression and persecution of the Negro, they were never so happy or excited when a Negro was barred from a theater or fried to a crisp.”)
A satire with a similar theme, Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence,” which the Negro Ensemble Company mounted as its inaugural production in 1965, imagined a town in which all the Black people suddenly disappeared — no nannies to feed the babies, no people for the cops to assault.
By contrast, the musical version of “Black No More” doesn’t seem as fully committed to satire. There is, for example, a relentless bombardment of racial slurs. Such fulsome language might have offered an authentic edge of ugliness to a movie like “12 Years a Slave,” but it sets a tone in the musical that undermines the balancing act needed for satire.
What the production seems to pay the most attention to – and the audience certainly does – are the musical numbers. The music — by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Water – is nearly a course in African-American genres, from gospel to jazz to R&B to hip-hop. Bill T. Jones’ choreography is a lesson in how to use dance for both insight and excitement. I won’t claim that any of the tunes are especially memorable, nor are Trotter’s lyrics, but many of the performances are — Tamika Lawrence (a revelation!) as a booming Buni, Ephraim Sykes as the upright Agamemnon in the gospel number “Lord Willing If The Creek Don’t Rise,” Lillias White as Madame Sisseretta, the owner of a hair-straightening and skin-lightening salon despairing of lost business because Harlemites have all rushed to the Black No More machine:
Nobody needs the full Aryan
Or even the entire Elamite
But just the right amount of white
Black No More
New Group at Signature
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Book by John Ridley; directed by Scott Elliott; lyrics and music by Tariq Trotter; music by Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters; choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Cast: Jennifer Damiano, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tamika Lawrence, Howard McGillin, Tracy Shayne, Theo Stockman, Ephraim Sykes, Tariq Trotter, Edward Watts, Lillias White, Leanne Antonio, Elijah A. Carter, Gaelen Gilliland, Polanco Jones Jr., Zachary Daniel Jones, Sarah Meahl, Mary Page Nance, Oneika Phillips, Nicholas Ranauro, Mars Rucker, Akron Watson, Nyla Watson, Rhaamell Burke-Missouri, Ryan Fitzgerald, Malaiyka Reid and Angela M. Sauers