Magic Theatre's 'The Ni¿¿er Lovers' Daring Satire
Jim Gladstone READ TIME: 5 MIN.
Ladies and gentlemen! Hurry! Hurry!
This weekend is your last chance to catch the runaway slaves!
(Oh no, he didn't.)
Oh yes I did, with a tip of the hat to Marc Anthony Thompson.
If you're uncomfortable with satire that takes a showbizzy scalpel to America's original and ongoing sins, by all means shuffle off and shy away from the final performances of "The Ni¿¿er Lovers," Thompson's excruciatingly humorous playwriting debut, which concludes its extended premiere run at the Magic Theatre this Sunday.
A vaudevillian vilification of racism, and of the often mawkish ways it's addressed in entertainment, "The Ni¿¿er Lovers" is smart as a whip, and smarts like one, too.
Performed by an all-POC cast in a series of blackout sketches that nod to minstrelsy and burlesque, the show opens with a prologue that's reminiscent of the Mel Brooks film "History of the World, Part I," but stings as much as it tickles.
After the theater darkens, the audience is briefly set adrift in a soundscape of turbulent seas and distant screams (the immersive sound design is by Christopher Sauceda). Then the lights come up on two men, minimally clad in traditional African garb (Rotimi Agbabiaka and Aejay Marquis Mitchell who, along with their castmates, play multiple roles).
Though we quickly realize that they're in the hull of a slave ship, en route to America, the gents are oblivious to their fate. They chit-chat in plummy British accents about the imagined job opportunities that lie ahead, having signed on for this trip without reading the fine print. The standard office water cooler they stand by reminds us that this is business as usual.
Swooping in to disabuse the soon-to-be-slaves of their happy fantasies is a time-traveling soothsayer (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) whose double-edged catchphrase, "Black to the future!" proves anything but soothing.
The scenes that follow largely center on Willie (Agbabiaka) and Ellie (Aidaa Peerzada), enslaved sweethearts (based loosely on real historical figures) who dream of fleeing the Georgia plantation where they live and heading for a better life in... Boston (Ba-dum-bummer!)
Until, then, their short-term form of escape is a very active sex life.
During the pair's first laugh-out-loud bawdy simulated encounter, Willie begs Ellie to wear a topcoat that belongs to the plantation owner's son. This is a fetish with wildly tangled subtexts, given that Ellie has routinely been raped by the boy's father.
Things get even further perverted when an eavesdropping sharecropper )played by Mitchell, wearing a big cardboard sign to indicate that he's "WHITE" and doing a perfect take on Orson Welles in "The Long Hot Summer") mistakenly believes that he's actually caught Willie in flagrante with the boss man's son. His reaction is not to raise hell with the patriarch, but to coerce Willie into "another" romp of sodomy.
Which leads Willie to kill him (M.O.: Hard stroke with a yoke). It also inspires an escape plan: Ellie, wearing that sexy topcoat as a disguise, will pose as Willie's owner as they make their way north.
Further murders ensue, including a death by dildo and a Papal smear, all played in a broad slapstick style that keeps the audience laughing, even when aghast. Playwright Thompson's M.O.is using a comic style to keep us from experiencing the easy, self-indulgent empathy delivered in so many dramatic representations of American slavery.
In that genre, tearjerking melodrama and horrific scenes of violence often encourage audience members to identify with individual victims.
Particularly when the audience members are white, this sort of shell-shocked immediate emotion can elicit easy tears and a sense of personal honor – Well, I never! –while letting them slip off a larger historical hook.
By rendering characters as comic tropes, Thompson and his co-director, Magic Theatre's Artistic Director Sean San José, invites audiences to engage intellectually more than emotionally, to see the complex systemic psychological distortions and manipulations that characterized American slavery and still mark its ongoing repercussions. The noxious interplay of power, race, and sex is laid bare to serve as the butt of joke after joke.
Thompson's approach to the topic at hand is a daring one, a cousin of Jeremy O. Harris' "Slave Play." Some audiences may balk at the boldness, unable to see that, in this case, humor allows a more rigorous examination of this subject matter than yet another puddle of tears or yelp of oversimplified outrage. So be it.
As "The Ni¿¿er Lovers" evolves on its way to future productions, which it absolutely merits, the show would benefit from some structural tinkering. A series of interstitial monologues from a crowd-pleasing Tanika Baptiste as a ringmaster-esque emcee provide moments of relief from the historical excoriation, but feel oddly disconnected from the main comic narrative and somewhat duplicate the earlier function of the time-travelling character.
Likewise, while Thompson's original songs (though a first time playwright, he's well known as a musician) offer spot-on parodies of performers like Al Green, James Brown, and the Stylistics, and are expertly sung by the cast, they don't feel of a piece with the old-timey burlesque style of the characters who sing them; they might themselves be more effective as interstitial performances.
That said, I'd be thrilled to see this show again, even unrevised. Refusing to trade in sentimentality and betting the farm on smarts, "The Ni¿¿er Lovers" offers tough love in the form of sharp art.
"The Ni¿¿er Lovers," through Sunday, May 28. $30-$70. Magic Theatre at Fort Mason. 2 Marina Boulevard, Bldg. D. (415) 441-8822 www.magictheatre.org
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