Black No More, the new musical inspired by George S. Schuyler’s 1931 Afrofuturist novel, is the most exciting and inventive new show to be seen so far this season in New York though it is still in need of work. With a book by Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the stage version drops Schuyler’s scathing satire of Harlem Renaissance and Depression figures as well as its political election hijinks for a more direct story about race and racism in the United States. As brilliantly staged by Scott Elliott for The New Group, Black No More is also a play of ideas and will keep you thinking and debating long after the final curtain in this story of the sacrifices people have to make to change the world.
While the plot is a little difficult to follow as characters come and go and then show up much later, Black No More has a sensational score of 34 musical numbers by four composers (four-time Grammy Award-winning singer of The Roots Tariq Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Tony Award winning orchestrator Daryl Waters) which would be worth the price of a ticket just as a concert. It is also performed by a top-flight cast of Broadway award winners and veterans including Lillias White, Howard McGillin, Brandon Victor Dixon, Jennifer Damiano, and Ephraim Sykes, as well as co-composer and sole lyricist Trotter aka rapper Black Thought making his New York theatrical debut. The extremely spare staging by Elliott also includes dazzling choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones for its cast of 26 with eight Black singer-dancers and eight White singer-dancers who are rarely still.
While the novel makes merciless fun of many Black VIPs of the Harlem Renaissance from W.E.B Du Bois, to Marcus Garvey to James Weldon Johnson and Madame C.J. Walker who made a fortune selling hair straightening and skin whitening products, the musical only includes an affectionate portrait of Madame Walker as Madame Sisseretta. The parody of Johnson, called Agamemnon Beard, a political figure in the novel, is here made into a literary one with social activist motivations. The extraordinary score with lyrics by Trotter and music by a combination of Trotter, Tidd, Poyser and Waters runs the entire gamut of Black music: gospel, jazz, Big Band, sing, R&B, rap and hip-hop.
The story is introduced by Dr. Cookman (played by Trotter) who has invented a Black No More machine that turns Black skin white, guaranteeing to solve the race problem in the United States. His first client is Max Dickson (Brandon Victor Dixon), a Harlem man about town and insurance agent, who meets a beautiful white Georgian girl (Jennifer Damiano) slumming with her racist brother Ashby (Theo Stockman) at Harlem’s Savoy Night Club and he falls hopelessly in love before she insults him for her brother’s sake and leaves to return to Atlanta. After Max becomes the first client and changes his name to Matthew Fisher to go with his new identity, there is a deluge of other Black people who also want to undergo the new treatment and change their fortunes. Buni Brown (played by Tamika Lawrence, a man in the novel), Max best friend, Madame Sisseretta (Lillias White), and the poet Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes) bemoan the emptying of Harlem and the passing of a community.
Max (now Matthew) moves to Atlanta to take advantage of the privileges of his new color and locate Helen but finds no work or friends. Accidentally he meets Rev. Givens (Howard McGillin), the founder and president of the Knights of Nordica, a Ku Klux Klan-like Southern organization, which is not bringing in any new members or donations. When Givens hears Matthew explaining the Negro race to whites, he invites him to speak to his organization. Matthew is so impressive in this new role of a white supremacist that he is named the Grand Exalted Giraw, his second in command, a job Givens’ thoroughly bigoted son Ashby was expecting to receive. Givens also gives Matthew his daughter’s hand in marriage and as fate would have it is the Helen he met and fell in love with at Harlem’s Savoy Nightclub but of course, she doesn’t recognize him.
Unlike in the novel, Helen comes to hate Matthew for his racist views but hopes to flee Atlanta with the child she is carrying soon after their marriage. Buni is sent to Atlanta to bring Max/Matthew back to save Harlem, while he is made to find a new cause for the Knights of Nordica and the Atlanta Citizen’s Council now that there are hardly any Black people left to cause dissention among the working class. Having taken his own treatment, Dr. Crookman (now Ignatius M. Blaquemun), who becomes the villain of the piece, descends on Atlanta to save his Black No More invention and the tension heats up with all of the main characters coming to a head-on collision. The story’s tragic ending is very different from the virulent satire of the original novel. The ultimate message is to put an end to hate.
While all of the musical production numbers register, some of the songs are particularly memorable with the women given the strong edge with their impassioned delivery. White brings down the house with the witty “Right Amount of White” in her beauty salon. Lawrence gives a poignant reading of “Come Back to Us” when she encounters Max/Matthew in Atlanta. Damiano is given a dynamic monologue, “Live Your Truth,” when she finds herself trapped in the double life she is leading. The longest and most involved number complete with counterpoint is the “What’s A Brother to Do?”/”What’s A Sister to Do?” led by Sykes and White, respectively, with the full ensemble, all pondering their situation in Harlem.
While not all of the characterizations are equally developed, director Scott Elliott’s cast is uniformly excellent. In his New York stage debut, Trotter has gravitas as Dr. Crookman but he lacks irony in a role which ultimately becomes villainous. Tamika Lawrence’s incorruptible and clear-eyed Buni ends up the heroine of the work. In the role of the protagonist Max Disher, later transformed into Matthew Fisher, Dixon is rather dour as he quickly finds that getting what you think you want may be a very mixed blessing. Veteran Broadway star Howard McGillin’s Rev. Givens is a suave and elegant racist, while Stockman as his son Ashby is a virulent dyed-in the wool racist. Damiano reveals greater depth as the show moves towards its conclusion. As Madame Sisseretta, White (Tony Award-winner for The Life about to be revived at Encores!) steals every scene she is in though she is off stage too often and not given enough to do.
A reading of the novel would suggest that a dramatization would require double casting as characters change the color of their skin or put them in white-face, both of which would not be acceptable today. Cleverly, costume designer Qween Jean has come to the rescue. The Harlem denizens all wear black initially but after undergoing Dr. Cookson’s treatment suddenly they dressed entirely in white. The society women of Atlanta are put in attractive print dresses which become more elaborate as the show goes on. Jeff Croiter’s elaborate lighting design (in red or blue) is often used to fill out Derek McLane’s stark scenery. Waters’ music supervision, orchestrations and vocal arrangements are quite impressive.
Not only is the new musical Black No More an update and reinvention of George S. Schuyler’s now classic but forgotten novel, but it also becomes relevant again in the age of Black Lives Matter and the rise of racist incidents in recent years. With an accomplished cast performing a magnificent and rich musical score, the show can be forgiven for its storytelling deficiencies. This is a show not to miss as well as a likely instant landmark in the musical theater.
Black No More (through February 27, 2022)
The New Group
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 917-935-4242 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission