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Billie, Malcolm & Yusef

This revival of a 1991 play takes place in heaven, where three African-American icons are prompted to consider whether they could be more useful somewhere else.

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Missa Thompson, Robert W.J. Barnes and Nathaniel J. Ryan in a scene from Fred Newman’s “Billie, Malcolm & Yusef” at Castillo Theatre (Photo credit: Ronald L. Glassman)

Mark Dundas Wood

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

Castillo Theatre’s revival of the late Fred Newman’s 1991 play Billie, Malcolm & Yusuf, directed by Gabrielle Kurlander, begins in the theater lobby, where we audience members gather for the funeral of Emmy Straight, an energetic if marginally talented comic who has been shot to death by a white man during a gig in Cleveland. Trailing behind the pallbearers carrying Emmy’s casket, we are led into the theater space itself, where we take our seats. We hear a rendition of the Talking Heads song “Heaven,” which tells us that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

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?”

Nathaniel J. Ryan, Missa Thompson, Robert W.J. Barnes, Regine Mont-Louis and Danny Battista in a scene from Fred Newman’s “Billie, Malcolm & Yusef” at Castillo Theatre (Photo credit: Ronald L. Glassman)

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.

Robert W.J. Barnes and Regine Mont-Louis in a scene from Fred Newman’s “Billie, Malcolm & Yusef” at Castillo Theatre (Photo credit: Ronald L. Glassman)

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

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Mark Dundas Wood
About Mark Dundas Wood (28 Articles)
Mark Dundas Wood contributes to the Bistro Awards website and The Clyde Fitch Report in addition to Theaterscene.net. Previously he wrote for American Theatre and Backstage. Credits as dramaturg include New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James’ "The Tragic Muse" appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. He received an MFA in theater (dramaturgy) from Columbia University.
Contact: Twitter

1 Comment on Billie, Malcolm & Yusef

  1. Avatar Howard Fredrics // February 21, 2019 at 1:16 pm // Reply

    n.b. In this show, “Heaven” is sung by Jimmy Scott and is not the Talking Heads version of the song.

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