The 1931 Afrofuturist novel whose the new musical “Black No More” takes its name is hardly subtle, beginning with its subtitle: “Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940”. George S. Schuyler’s satire is essentially a thought experiment in which a procedure that decolorizes black people solves America’s racial problem but creates a new one when there’s no one left to hate.
The musical version of The New Group, which debuted at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Tuesday, makes the smart decision to borrow only the rudiments of the novel. It empties most of the silly names (Ezekiel Whooper, Rufus Kretin), fine caricatures (of WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garveyamong others) and a strangely jovial tone in favor of a more serious look at internalized racism and the enigmas of assimilation.
The result, directed by Scott Elliott, is a gorgeous mess. Although it is at the forefront of Schuyler’s central question – Is the goal of racial progress the ennoblement of Blackness or its disappearance into a “chromatic democracy”? – his tone is nervous and his narration gritty. The book by John Ridley, who wrote ’12 Years a Slave’, only half-fixes the original, while introducing new problems that music and dance can’t solve.
But oh, what music and what dancing! That the score is the work of many hands — lyrics by Tariq Trotter of the Roots; the music of Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters – seems to have been a plus here, helping to establish the show’s different moods and personalities.
With nods to Kurt Weill, “Hamilton”, hip-hop, gospel, jazz, spoken word and Tin Pan Alley, among other diverse inspirations and traditions, the songs reveal the aspirations and dislikes of the characters, which often amount to the same thing. . Plus, under Waters’ musical supervision, they provide plenty of opportunities for phenomenal singing from the cast of 26, backed by a formidable band of seven.
The choreography, by Bill T. Jones, is also thrilling, sometimes illustrating specific ideas (like the differences between black and white social dances) and other times expressing the overall conflict between racial pride and frustration. Because this conflict remains unresolved in the story, Jones often refuses to resolve it on the move; the numbers go from tense to frenzied without the all-too-familiar Broadway-style climax.
But the singing and dancing elements of “Black No More” prove too exciting to be sustained by its wonky book. Making the inventor of the bleaching process the narrator – his name, alas, is Dr. Junius Crookman – immediately puts the story on a strange footing; a neutral character in the novel, here he’s an amoral villain, and in Trotter’s spotty performance (great at rapping, stiff at acting) a little too Dr. Evil. This immediately dismisses the actual central character, Max Disher, creating a blurry focus that the show never fully recovers from.
Yet by the time Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon) becomes Crookman’s first patient, undergoing what looks like a dental procedure, “Black No More” has effectively set up his reasons for choosing whiteness. Although he enjoys the “sporting life” he leads in Harlem, his safety from the stings of overt racism comes at a cost. In “I Want It All”, his intro song, he explains that he is never a full man within the confines of his community, but merely “three-fifths” of one.
For others, however, Harlem is “the gateway to heaven” and “the mecca of the black race.” Disher’s best friend – a man named Bunny in the novel but here a woman named Buni – cannot understand why anyone would leave a place “where a person knows what awaits”. (Buni is played by stunning singer Tamika Lawrence.) For Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), a character new to the story, Disher is simply a traitor, selling the dream of black excellence.
The two are particularly impressed with Disher’s basic motivations: to make more money in a more exciting career (he’s an insurance salesman) and to meet the white woman from Atlanta he falls in love with one night at a club.
This woman, Helen Givens – played by Jennifer Damiano in a Veronica Lake wig – is the most radically revamped character in the musical; she is much more complicated than the novel’s unreconstructed racist. Unfortunately, in their attempt to give him greater agency, the musical’s writers make his motivations and choices nearly inconsistent.
As the story begins to pile on the plot – it feels too hasty even after two hours and 30 minutes – the problem spreads to everyone. Especially after Disher and Givens are married in Georgia and a presumably mixed-race baby is imminent, the musical pushes too hard towards tragedy, ending up short in melodrama.
And yet, melodrama can be effective, especially when it is sung; the “melo” part of the word, after all, means music. With the exception of Sykes, who gets a big gospel number (“Lord Willing if the Creek Don’t Rise”), women do better than men at fending off plot confusions. (Dixon, usually a captivating performer, sounds oddly recessive here.) And don’t ask why Madame Sisseretta Blandish, the beauty impresario modeled on Mrs. CJ Walker, sings not only in her living room but also in a nightclub; when it’s Lillias White singing, who cares? It even makes the gibberish of scat syllables extremely specific.
Although Disher is the one who undergoes the most dramatic change — he ends up becoming the “High Exalted Giraw” of a Klanlike organization — I found myself more interested in Madame Sisseretta. This is partly because it is not allegorical; she’s a hands-on businesswoman who understands that her dying business in hair straighteners and skin lighteners is only a degree different from Crookman’s. In the song “Right Amount of White” – “Just a little pinch of French / Just a slight touch of Dutch / Just a little bit of British” – she establishes the themes and relevance of the show with a humor and theatrical specificity that is mostly absent elsewhere.
As “Black No More” continues its development process, it will surely have to find more respite like this between the whimsy of the novel and its current chaotic gloom. (With the exception of Qween Jean’s sexy costumes, the design is almost punishingly cold.) I hope the writers can do this without losing what’s already beautiful about this promising work – keeping that beauty in mind, otherwise (according to “Black No More”) Blackness, is only superficial.
Through Feb. 27 at Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; thenewgroup.org. Duration: 2h30.