Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre
at Victory Gardens Theater
By Kelly Kleiman
The African-American experience is so often identified with the biblical story of Exodus that only occasionally does it come to mind how strange it is for black Christians to adopt as their defining narrative the foundation story of the Jews. But the story of Christ, whose central trope is that being victimized is ultimately for the best, might be particularly problematic for African-Americans. Still, it makes sense that at times black artists would try to engage the life-explaining possibilities of the New Testament.
Two such efforts are on display now. But unfortunately, neither Chris T, a world premiere by Nambi E. Kelley, nor Black Nativity, being produced by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, provides any fresh insight into the story of Jesus or the African-American experience.
In the case of Chris T, it's not for lack of trying. Kelley's work seems practically drunk on ideas, incorporating nearly every thought anyone has ever had about racism in America, how the powerful victimize the powerless, and how the Christ story can be reconfigured to reflect those issues. But these thoughts are tossed off aimlessly rather than organized, and the evening ends up sounding like the reading of a first draft.
Because Chris T follows the titular homeless man from his unexplained arrival through his persecution, crucifixion, and resurrection, it's actually more an Advent or Passion play than a celebration of the Nativity. But the piece borrows the traditional Nativity setting of winter--in this case a nuclear winter triggered when the "Prezo-dent" of the United States announces that Jesus Christ never existed.
If this is what nuclear winter is like, I desperately want to avoid it: it resembles being trapped in an undergraduate bull session about God conducted in word salad: "Looking at a town that's dead, dead by head, in pain in the rain by Novocain....Uncle Son of Sam I Am." There are references to or errant ideas from every pop-culture exploration of relevant traditions, from William T. Stead's hoary If Christ Came to Chicago! to Ewan MacColl's song "Jesus Was a Workingman" to Kurt Vonnegut's meditation that the real meaning of the Christ story is that you shouldn't fuck with somebody who's connected. (Vonnegut recommends that the story be rewritten so that God doesn't adopt Jesus until after the crucifixion, making the point that you shouldn't fuck with anybody.)
Every one of these ideas is interesting, as are many of the three dozen other themes Kelley throws in: that sexual abuse is traumatic, that army service is traumatic, that sometimes it's hard to tell sex and violence apart, that the "Prezo-dent" is just a front man for evil people behind the scenes, that the function of blackness within American society is to enable white people to project negative characteristics onto others ("I used to be white," says Chris T, "but now I'm black so everyone else can exist"), that simple awareness of contemporary society is toxic ("I smoke cigarettes and read the newspaper," says Chris T. "That's how I take in the evils of the world").
Kelley and director Chuck Smith personify these half-formed thoughts in an array of stereotypes, including a black woman who's grossly fat, a black woman who's sexually hyperactive, an angry black man who's a walking time bomb, and so on. A white playwright and director would have been pilloried for these minstrel-show grotesques, and rightly so. Presumably Kelley and Smith were shooting for the big picture, with the overweight Mama Pajama (Penelope Walker) standing in for the pregnant mother of God and hypersexual Sassafras (Tabitha Cross) playing the magdalen. But their efforts fail, leaving audience members wondering how to file a complaint with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Actors.
Together Kelley and Smith waste the talents of a truly exceptional cast. As the title character, P. Francois Battiste glows from within, giving the part warmth and conviction. But it's a great indictment of Chicago's criminal shortage of work for African-American actors that his considerable gifts were available to be thrown away on this play. Likewise Dushon Monique Brown, whose performance as the Stage Manager in Steppenwolf's Our Town single-handedly rescued the part from generations of high school ill-usage: here she's trapped in men's clothing behind a phony mustache in the utterly thankless role of the Prezo-dent, a part so badly conceived you can't tell whether the character is supposed to be Pilate or Herod.
Kelley is a graduate of Steppenwolf's New Plays Lab, an experience that should have taught her when a manuscript needs another few trips through the computer. This one certainly does, and Smith is experienced enough to know that even if Kelley is not. Maybe MPAACT was so desperate for "a Christmas show" that it put this one up prematurely.
Not much of Langston Hughes is left in Fleetwood-Jourdain's adaptation of his Black Nativity, a combination grammar-school Christmas pageant and choir concert. The pageant, complete with baby-doll Jesus and a manger represented by mattresses flanked by potted plants, takes its text straight from the New Testament via the Peanuts Christmas special: "And it came to pass..." There's only a single passage of additional material, a piece of doggerel less evocative of the author of The Fire Next Time than of Dr. Seuss.
This production makes no effort to reinterpret the story to give it cultural authenticity or relevance: even the music is primarily traditional European Christmas stuff rather than black gospel. The largely tone-deaf cast flounders, though Sandra Renee Black's onstage music direction is wonderful. From the first time she raises her hands, she has everyone in the room--audience and choir alike--under her sway, using nothing more than the joyful authority of someone whose first language is music.