Revolutionary War patriots Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin are eerily represented by male and female black performers wearing tweaked 18th century garb, half-white wigs and garish makeup. They’re on a raised platform sitting on period furniture and cynically thrashing out The Declaration of Independence with the aim of enforcing white male hegemony. This is the satirical wild opening of The Black History Museum…According to the United States of America. It’s an immersive two-hour performance art piece performed all over the two floors of New York City’s HERE theater complex.
As the audience waits in the lobby, there’s recorded voice-overs of black people giving their views on being black, a screen projects Oxford Dictionary racial definitions, and vintage-looking signs from old U.S. census forms define racial categories such as octoroon and quadroon. The “magical mulatto” tour guide Jasper Sarsaparilla arrives wearing a red uniform to jovially and sternly take us on a wrenching journey through Black American history.
Created by Zoey Martinson and co-written by her and Kareem Lucas, Jonathan Braylock and with additional writing by Robert King and Shenovia Large, and in collaboration with Brandan “B-mike” Odums, and Arminda Thomas, we’re in the provocative and irreverent counter-culture terrain forged by Amiri Baraka, Melvin Van Peebles and George C. Wolfe.
The audience goes through hallways to view museum-style exhibits such as a barbershop, the life of Bayard Rustin and a gallery devoted to hair braiding. Most shattering is a staircase laden with cotton and grim details about the picking of it on Southern plantations. In the theaters there’s an audience participation gameshow, a corporate training seminar and an haunting replication of a slave ship at an African coast. Superior modern dance sequences and fiery speechifying are performed along the way. By the end, one has been overwhelmed and probably further enlightened by the harsh facts of the past and how these inform the present.
The cast of Kareem M. Lucas, Robert King, Marcia Berry, Landon Woodson, Tabatha Gayle, Toni Ann DeNoble, Langston Darby, Latra Wilson, Telly Fowler, Taylor Boyland and Eury German are all dynamic performers and expert at improvisation when they engage with audience members.
Ms. Martinson’s jolting staging in varied areas is a grand melding of spectacle and thoughtfulness, achieving its agenda of educational entertainment. Choreographer Francesca Harper’s striking dances add to the production’s presentational diversity. In addition to the Founding Fathers getups, the rest of Ari Fulton’s voluminous costume design is just as dazzling. From the wooden slats of an enclosure to a wacky church auditorium and other surprising places, scenic designer D’Vaughn Agu’s creations are inventive. Composer Avi Amon’s rousing original music, verbal recordings and effects are rendered by his crisp sound design. The numerous other technical elements are all equally accomplished.
While often slyly amusing, The Black History Museum…According to the United States of America is a stimulating, upsetting, and unique experience.
The Black History Museum…According to the United States of America (through November 24, 2019)
Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative
HERE, 145 6th Ave in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-647-0202 or visit http://www.here.org
Running time: two hours without an intermission