Playwright Nia Ostrow Witherspoon’s nonlinear saga Messiah theatrically dramatizes urban African-American and queer experiences. Rather than a straightforward narrative we’re in Tony Kushner-style epic territory during this historical opus that lasts three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. The writing is accomplished, the plot is imaginative, and the characters are fascinating.
Flashbacks, speechifying, conspiracy theories involving J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, disco sequences, the scourge of crack cocaine, hip hop numbers, other-worldly fantasies and violence all play out on scenic designer You-Shin Chen’s terrific runway stage with its several levels, a mirror ball and a raised DJ booth. Strobe lights, sirens and a multitude of musical snippets accompany the actions of the people of color and trans characters.
Ms. Witherspoon’s ambitious vision is vividly realized by her dynamic staging in concert with choreography and movement consultant Ni’Ja Whitson’s polished work. Tuce Yasak’s lighting design and Sadah Espii Proctor’s sound design achieve a desired fantastical dimension with their striking effects. Projection designer Kameron Neal’s black and white celestial imagery is sparingly yet effectively utilized. Form fitting metallic dancewear, athletic garb and representative street clothes are the hallmarks of costume designer Rashidah Nelson’s fine creations.
In 1969, marries Black Panthers Curtis and Brenda have a daughter named Malika. Brenda is arrested and sent to prison. In her absence, Curtis sets up house with his gregarious trans stripper girlfriend Maybelline and they raise Malika. Brenda returns after five years and Curtis regretfully throws Maybelline out and eventually runs away. Brenda becomes an embittered alcoholic.
In 1996, we’re at a nightclub where Messiah is the DJ. Malika identifies as male and is Messiah. The fiery and good-natured Basimah is their girlfriend and is intrigued to do research about the neighborhood and learns that the nightclub was once the Star Land where Maybelline danced. The aged Curtis shows up and has a tense reunion with Messiah. Witherspoon weaves the events of the past and present and the characters’ conflicts with fervor.
The magnetic company of Rowin Amone, Sol de la Ciudad, Marie Louise Guinier, Jiggy Jada, Shaa Kettrles, Malik Reed, Rodrikus Damon Springfield, Ianne Fields Stewart, Sharlee Taylor and Deshawn Wyatte all give riveting performances.
Though there are admirable and compelling segments of Messiah, there’s also repetitiveness, vagueness and tangential digressions. An assault blends in to a tableau and gradually the audience figures out that this is the intermission after an hour and 45 minutes even though actors remain onstage. What appears to be the ending is followed by more endings. Cumulatively Messiah is fitfully stimulating but draining.
Messiah (through June 2, 2019)
La MaMa’s Downstairs Theatre, 66 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.lamam.org
Running time: three hours and 15 minutes including one intermission