Authors: Stew and Heidi Rodewald
At: The Den Theatre, 1616 N. Wells St. Tickets: HavenTheatreChicago.com; $35. Runs through: March 10
Haven Theatre and About Face Theatre's The Total Bent is what comes from combining a dab of everything on your artists' pallet.
It's beat poetry, gospel, blues and psychadelic flutes. The same goes for tone; director Lili-Anne Brown keeps us volleying between total exuberance and total despair. The production delivers standout performances and compelling music, and makes sure you are not so deep in the narrative that you miss dozens of modern-day Easter eggs. The Total Bent wants us to examine Black fame and the threads of injustice that are laced through it, and ask how anyone could survive it.
One one corner there's a Bluntgomery, Alabama, television preacher named Papa Joe Roy ( Robert Cornelius ), and his gospel band. They're staging a comeback that'll help the public forget the disgrace of his fake faith healing, but he won't be involved in any civil-rights boycotting. He'll disparage white folks in the privacy of his own home, maintaining the Black status quo.
And in the other corner, there's Joe's son, Marty ( Gilbert Domally ), who wants to push boundaries; he's the one putting words to his father's music. His music goes from trolling Bluntgomery's white believers with songs like "That's Why He's Jesus and You're Not, Whitey" to weird soaring music that questions god, sex and gender norms. Marty seduces annoyingly posh London record producer Byron Blackwell ( Eric Lindahl ) to make his album, and recruits Abee ( Breon Arzell ) and Andrew ( Michael Turrentine ), two shmoes who wandered in, to sing backup. The further Marty runs from Joe's idea of Godly entertainment, the more similarities we start to notice.
The humor is sharp and the music has the potential to hit you, no matter where you stand on gospel, rock or psychedelic overtures. The house band led by Deacon Charlie ( Jermaine Hill ) on piano and Deacon Dennis ( Frederick Harris ) on organ treats audiences to a sampler platter of songs that get too raunchy, manic and subversive for their own good. ( You might hate yourself when a song titled "I'm Thankful for Slavery" stays lodged in your head. ) Arzell utilizes the small space with expert choreography. As Blackwell, Lindahl is such a smarmy, demanding, undercutting little whitesplainer, you can't wait for him to leave. ( Don't worry; that's the point. ) But the true heavyweights of The Total Bent are Gilbert Domally, as Marty Roy, and Robert Cornelius, as Joe Roy. Domally tiptoes carefully around his queerness and ferocity, until the force of his true nature gets pressed to vinyl and thousands of Londoners can't get enough. As Joe, Cornelius has contempt and mistrust for a changing world. He scolds Marty and his community in song, but it only seems to backfire.