About 20 minutes into Actor Theatre’s production of “Everybody Black” by playwright and poet Dave Harris, there’s an argument between a Black Millennial and a straight-out-of-a-history-textbook Black American enslaved person about who has it worse. Then, in the middle of the argument, a spotlight focuses on a figure standing in the aisle, one who my sister immediately identifies as a Hotep and whose signature greeting is “Ashanti Ja Rule!”, Black Power fist-raised in the air.
It was at this point when, as forewarned during the opening monologue from the character dubbed “Mad Black Historian,” I audibly wondered, “What is going on here?”
I know that all sounds absurd, but allow me to provide some context: In “Everybody Black,” Mad Black Historian has been commissioned by a group of white historians to chronicle The Black Experience™ for a time capsule that’s going to be launched into space for aliens to someday discover. Mad Black Historian confides to the audience that he’s never actually met another Black person, but he’s going to cash that big ol’ check anyways – and off we go!
“Everybody Black” is saturated in Black pop culture references, including the title, itself a callback to that iconic Issa Rae red carpet moment. But these collective images and narratives we recognize are being skewed – and skewered. Think Paul Beatty’s classic novel, The White Boy Shuffle, think Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video – gospel choirs and guns, think anything Jordan Peele. (And if you’re unfamiliar with any of the Black creators linked to in this paragraph, you should ask yourself why that is.)
During the play, I was distracted several times by a loud laugh from an audience member that at times felt inappropriate. My mind went to Dave Chappelle. He told Time he left his successful Comedy Central show when during filming of a sketch “a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them.”
After the play, I chatted with “Everybody Black” actor Ashley N. Hildreth. She told me that director Awoye Timpo brought in Yale professor Daphne Brooks, an expert in Black satire, to speak with the cast for an hour to prepare them for the experience of creating Black art that will be consumed by a majority white audience. Timpo is clearly a thoughtful director who cares about the success of the production and the well-being of the cast in equal measures.
This is not a play that’s scrounging around for the meaning in our lives and our pasts. No, this is a play that laughs loud and hard in the face of that ultimate question: “What even is Truth and why are we invested in it? In controlling its narrative? Who does that serve?”
As the Mad Black Historian reminds us, “Nothing is historically accurate.” So then, where do we go from here? That’s up to you, but I think it should be to go see this play before the Humana Festival ends April 7th.
Minda Honey is on Twitter @mindahoney and Facebook at “Ask Minda Honey.”