As the play begins in earnest, we realize that heaven is exactly where we are. And those David Byrne lyrics are appropriate: Newman’s version of the hereafter is a dull place. No one has been fitted with wings, and there’s not a harp to be found. In three corners of Joseph Spirito’s ambitious and elaborate set—with its staircase and tapestries and built-in TV monitors—are three elevated pedestals. Each one serves as a niche for one of the title characters: legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday (Missa Thompson), minister and human rights advocate Malcolm X (Nathaniel J. Ryan) and Yusuf Hawkins (Robert W.J. Barnes, Jr.), the black teenager shot to death by a gang of white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1989. The three figures are found standing, but they seem barely awake. Eventually, they rouse themselves, at least partially. “Lady Day” finds enough energy to sing a drowsy rendition of “Willow Weep for Me.”
But then, like a jack-in-the-box, out of that casket pops a loud, brash woman wearing garish, clownish clothes. Yes, it’s Emmy Straight (Regine Mont-Louis), and she wants answers: “Where the hell is God?” she demands. “Where’s the damn manager around here?”
Emmy’s irreverence makes for a sharp and jarring contrast with the three esteemed characters on the pedestals. But it soon becomes clear that Emmy is one of those catalytic characters—like Starbuck in The Rainmaker or Harold Hill in The Music Man. She’s the outsider, the new face in town, the one whose arrival shakes things up and helps those around her transform. And this happens in short order. After revealing proudly that she is gay, Emma quickly helps Yusuf reconsider his knee-jerk teenage homophobia. More significantly, she begins to help Billie, Malcolm and Yusuf emerge from their torpor and start questioning whether their being honored as “monumental” figures is misguided. Does it keep their admirers from moving forward themselves? Could it be that, working as a team, these four can hatch a plan to break out of heaven and, somehow, become more useful spirits?
The fable-like play moves quickly. Musical director / pianist Walker J. Jackson helps to provide an abundance of music throughout, much of it, unsurprisingly, sung by Billie. At the performance under review, the numbers performed by the actors playing the other characters seemed in need of some tightening.
The characters’ discussion regarding the usefulness or uselessness of monumental figures in the African-American community is brisk and not too talky or heady. And, always, the presence of the outrageous and outspoken Emmy keeps the serious dimensions of the text from seeming ponderous.
Thompson does good work as Billie—she looks like her and sounds like her when singing. Too bad, though, that her songs are all ballads. It would have been nice to hear her sing something more upbeat from the Holiday catalog, perhaps toward the end of the show. Ryan gives us a Malcolm who looks like a scholar and sounds like a practiced orator. And Barnes creates a Yusuf whose early death has made him an eternal adolescent: frozen forever, somewhere between youth and manhood. Perhaps, though, with Emmy’s help, Yusuf can somehow grow out of this awkward stage—dead though he may be.
Costume designer Jamie Gross’ most obvious contributions are Billie’s elegant gown, with white fur, and Emmy’s crazy-quilt getup. David Levitt’s lighting design helps us accept Newman’s vision of heaven as something more complicated than a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Videographer Jared Glenn, along with video editor Nathan Carpenter, has created some satirical newscast clips for ”WGOD,” heaven’s local TV station. We also see real-life historical clips from the time of the Hawkins murder.
At a time in which discrimination and violence continue to plague Americans—particularly, African-Americans—Billie, Malcolm & Yusuf reminds us that artists’ responses to tragedy need not keep audiences steeped in despair. A lighter artistic touch can sometimes engender hope and keep people energized in a way that harrowing dramas cannot.
Billie, Malcolm & Yusuf (through March 17, 2019)
Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Tickets: Call 212-941-1234 or visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission