Black History at Warp Speed
Want to know my definition of good theater? It's when you take a seat, see a show, and go home a changed person. That's what you can expect from the M Ensemble's new production of Strands, now on dazzling display at the venerable company's North Miami theater. Strands is one of those rare shows that makes an impact on several levels: as an emotional statement, as sheer entertainment, and as a daring display of artistry. Playwright Eric Wilson has set his sights on a huge subject -- tracing the entire journey of the African-American man, from the preslavery cultures of Africa through the present day. The production skillfully combines spoken word, dance, ritual, song, and rhythmic drumming to create a powerful theatrical event you don't want to miss.
Wilson's narrative races through history in a series of vivid scenes. To the mesmerizing beat of on-stage drummers, a young prince is born to his people, but soon all are beset by slave traders, white and black, who ship them across the sea in chains. African men are sold on the auction block, shipped off to brutal labor on plantations, forced to suffer the indignities of enslavement and the heartbreak of families torn apart when loved ones are purchased like cattle. The narrative charges on, skipping to the experiences of black infantrymen fighting in World War I only to return home to vicious bigotry. The black man's fate in the 20th Century centers on the northern migrations, the rise of black musical forms -- gospel, blues, and jazz -- as well as the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s, and the self-enslavement of inner-city drug addiction. Wilson's approach, history at warp speed, scores a direct thematic hit. You can't help but realize that all this happened not so long ago and that the events of the past still echo resoundingly in the present.
Director Jerry Maple Jr.'s production is stellar on all counts. The performing ensemble consists of seven actors and two drummers, including Maple. It is a visually striking mix of the young and the old, each with a unique look and personal dynamic. But somehow, they blend together seamlessly, delivering Wilson's complex, poetic text with assurance, resonance, and clarity. The acting is forceful but nicely understated, and the dancing, drumming, and singing are first-rate. But it's the company's intangibles -- joy, pride, a subtle sense of interplay and improvisation -- that make this show a delight.
Maple, who has demonstrated solid direction in a number of earlier M Ensemble productions, has a field day with this highly visual, emotionally explosive material. His staging is striking and detailed as the story careens from one huge scene to the next -- a slave ship's prison, a battlefield, a church service. From the potent monologues to the group harmonics, striking choreography, pantomime, and fight scenes -- Maple has infused it all with dynamic energy. He uses chromatics for effect, shifting from splashes of color and athletic staging to sobering shadow tones and restrained movements. Tribal rituals are replete with colorful African robes and carved staffs, but as the years unfold, the black man's identity becomes further and further removed from Mother Africa. As the epic enters the modern era, the costumes are more muted; the staging as well. It's only at the final ritual of hope and rebirth that vivid color returns.
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A strong production team brings Maple's vision to life, making excellent use of the theater's new technology. E. Marcus Smith offers a wide, airy stage design -- a series of sky-blue panels with seven raised discs centerstage in a half-moon pattern. With the M's new lighting system, resident lighting designer Apon Nichols finally has the tools to work with, delivering painterly, dreamlike compositions. Teddy Studstill's sound design creates intricate musical and environmental effects. The costume design and complex choreography remain uncredited but are also worthy of praise. The net result is a sharp jump in production quality, nothing less than a new beginning for the 33-year-old company.
As with any production, Strands is not without flaws. The startling power and sweep of the first act isn't matched by the second, which bogs down at times in a few talky and static scenes. The next-to-last sequence, about a foul-mouthed drug addict, may make some theatergoers uncomfortable, owing to the language. But the play's unflinching observation of one modern black man's descent from comical ne'er-do-well into savage despair is intentionally and unavoidably discomfiting. It's as if the entire tragedy of African history has been distilled into an inner curse deep within one broken doper. This searing, painful sequence would make for an unbearable ending were it not for a final ritual of transcendence, as the broken black man becomes whole again with the help of traditional culture and the community of other men.
Walking out of the theater after such a moving experience, the whole world seems healed and hopeful, if only for the time it takes to drive home.
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