Writer and co-creator Chesney Snow is also the performer. Mr. Snow appeared in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of the a capella musical In Transit as the narrator. Snow is also a prominent beatboxer. That’s an art form that replicates the sound of percussion by using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, and voice. In The Unwritten Law, the African American Snow mines the tragic circumstances of his life and those close to him.
Born to teenage parents who split up, Snow had a hard childhood in erratic circumstances. Crisscrossing from Oklahoma, Chicago, Mississippi and Wisconsin with his resourceful mother and younger sister, he underwent one bleak incident after another. Violence, rape, abuse, police belligerence and incarceration are detailed. The cycle repeats itself when as a teenager he gets a 16 year-old girl pregnant and her family takes his son away. There’s also a chilling reenactment of a relative’s lynching in 1929.
I am a storyteller telling time
Tilted off the world’s axis of lies.
Spying on the magnificently magnified cries of history.
Like my Big Daddy was a sharecropper,
But this man didn’t share the lot he copped from daddy’s pain.
He asked me why I still have angry veins,
See, less than five mamas ago, I was enslaved in a grave called life.
The writing is an able and earthy blend of the straightforward and the poetic that suits the material. The finale is a grandiloquent overview on the theme of progress that verges on didacticism.
Snow is a terrific performer with a strong presence and his emotional attachment to the material is palpable. Much of his vocal delivery is in the mode of the poetry slam-style rhythm that mirrors hip-hop music. Depending on one’s taste this can be enthralling or at times monotonous. There are also quieter passages of affective intensity.
Co-creator, director and choreographer Rebecca Arends has realized the work with her accomplished artistry. The unison of Ms. Arends’ precise direction and aesthetic, modern dance choreography perfectly complements Snow’s stories. These are transformed into a visually compelling event on the virtually bare stage that has a few chairs and some wooden blocks.
With superior dancing skills, the radiant Arends also makes a great impression as a performer. Throughout Snow’s recitation, she silently appears as his mother, sister and various other roles. Her perpetually neutral facial expression amidst the grim reveries is haunting.
Dancer Winston Dynamite Brown forcefully performs a number of male characters in the narrative. These include a young man with Muscular Dystrophy and the lynching victim. In addition to dancing, the personable Mr. Brown also speaks in several of these roles revealing his acting talents. At future performances, Maleek Washington will play this part.
Throughout the show Arends and Brown are seen in differing, bright dancewear. These permutations of red, gray, white, blue and black add a bold look to their scenes.
The superb playing of pianist A.J. Khaw and cellist Varuni Tiruchelvam, who are off to the side in dimness, make a powerful contribution to the show.
The stage’s back wall is a large screen on which Emre Emirgil’s striking projections are shown. Vintage photographs, video clips of the locales and calligraphic titles for time periods are all beautifully rendered.
Lighting designer Ro-z Edelston’s efforts energetically enhance the presentation with a variety of bursts of brightness and moody fades.
Passionate, difficult and engrossing, The Unwritten Law is a searing depiction of triumph over adversity.
The Unwritten Law (through August 14, 2017)
Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.dixonplace.org
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission