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THEATER REVIEW Black!
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-07-26

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Playwright: Michael Washington Brown. At: Athenaeum Theatre Productions at the Atheneaum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $25. Runs through: Through July 30

Early in his solo show, our author/performer recounts how, one night, he went to bed Black and awoke to find that he was "African-American"—only he wasn't.

Michael Washington Brown is a citizen of the United Kingdom, you see, the son of West Indian immigrants—and thus is neither African nor American. He then proceeds to dispel erroneous assumptions arising from the imposition of overly restrictive categories upon a designation too diverse to support such taxonomic sophistry ( after the fashion of the 17th-century French scholars who first codified the concept of "races" ).

He begins with the archetypal angry urban African-American male, noting that anthems to solidarity and loyalty can be detected in rap lyrics, once the hostile epithets are removed—changing "n—-ahs" to "brothers," or " bitches" to "queens" —while also warning young men that music reflecting "gangsta" attitudes can bring a date to a swift end. ( "You just played "Good Night," because that's what she will say." ) We later meet a Caribbean father who calls our attention to residents not included in the 92-percent Black population of Jamaica seeing no need to identify themselves with hyphenated designations like "Jewish-Jamaican" or "Chinese-Jamaican." Finally, an African expatriate being interviewed on British television bemoans his country's image as a place so terrible that even African mothers discipline disobedient children by threatening to "send [them] back to Africa."

Brown's purpose becomes apparent when he speaks in his own voice to acquaint us with a treatise of apocryphal origin entitled The Making of a Slave, allegedly written by one William Lynch in 1712. This widely circulated document purports to instruct plantation owners in methods for ensuring the subjugation of their slaves, chief among which is promotion of mistrust based on superficial disparity—old against young, field worker against house worker, dark complexion against light complexion. Viewing the competition and factionalism endemic in his community today, Brown asks whether he and his fellow Blacks are not themselves contributing to the enslavement of their peers.

Brown exhibits superlative dialect skills in the creation of his personae, and if his sermonizing sometimes grows repetitious in its efforts to stretch itself to 90-minute feature length, his plea for unification is a timely reminder of the increasing importance of global values over parochial prejudice.


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