Boppin' With the Ancestors, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Rob Penny, whose comedy Good Black recently won ETA Creative Arts Foundation's "pick of the decade," returns with a more complex play: two young gangbangers are challenged by the supernatural intervention of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and an ancient African goddess. Penny's themes--the survival of African-American youth, their lack of education, their disrespect for their elders and heritage--are powerful, but his script is still a few rewrites short of delivering his message clearly. For instance, Penny sets up the characters of the ancestors in a brief introductory scene, then changes them into contemporary people but explains almost nothing about their journey. The present-day manifestations of King and Malcolm X are barbers, and the playwright delivers their history through some lovely monologues and flashbacks, but it's unclear whether the ancestors have actually inhabited these men's bodies. Supernatural beings have been part of drama from the Greeks to Tony Kushner, but for the audience to buy ghosts, angels, and ancestors their presence must be clearly explained.
Still, the play delivers some powerful moments, due in large part to strong acting and Donn Carl Harper's fluid direction. Especially memorable is Malik Yusef's poetic account of a gangbanger's death in a shooting match with police. Here Penny's language is rich, rawly conveying the tragedy of urban violence, and Yusef's earnest, impassioned interpretation resonates. --Gabrielle S. Kaplan