“Black No More,” a new Off-Broadway musical created by showbiz heavyweights, uses the title of its source material, George S. Schuyler’s classic 1931 novel about black people passing as white. But it might be more aptly titled “White Like Me” because it seems to draw more inspiration from John Howard Griffin’s now-forgotten 1961 bestseller, “Black Like Me,” which details the white journalist’s account of his trip south for six weeks. black face. The hugely popular book was turned into an even more terrible film in 1964, starring James Whitmore in blackface.
The New Group’s production of “Black No More,” which kicked off Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, repeats a lot of racial platitudes and bromides in “Black Like Me.” What doesn’t repeat itself is much of everything viciously satirical Schuyler’s “Black No More.” What little remains involves a company known as Black No More, a breakthrough scientific procedure that lightens skin, making people of African descent look the same as Caucasians. The first man to undergo the process is Max (Brandon Victor Dixon, loaded with laid-back charm), who has just been pushed away by a white woman, Helen (Jennifer Damiano), after flirting with him at a Harlem nightclub.
In its opening moments, “Black No More” recalls the 1999-2000 theatrical season in New York where there were dueling musicals named “The Wild Party,” both shows based on Joseph Moncure’s 1928 poem March. These speakeasy in Harlem were a mixing ground for all races and sexual orientations. In “Black No More,” Bill T. Jones’ relentless choreography emphasizes this diversity and adds another: he pairs professional dancers with some who aren’t so professional (to be nice). They’re dancing to the loud showstopper “This Is Harlem,” and we’re back in 1929. Or is it 1999?
It’s hard to tell where director Scott Elliott’s work ends and Jones’ choreography begins. There’s an easy fluidity to display here, except when the dancers seem to be in pain doing some of the more awkward contortions asked of them.
The “Black No More” score runs the gamut from blues to hip-hop to torch songs and bad Rodgers & Hammerstein parodies for the white characters to sing along to. No less than four composers are credited – Tariq Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters – with Trotter (aka Black Thought) providing the lyrics, which are clever until they bomb “Climb Every Mountain” .
Before the entire cast goes completely over the R&H cliff singing “Victory for Love” at the final curtain, Trotter only slips once when Helen asks for “transparency” from Max, which she now has. married while believing he is a white man. Before she can say “Mandingo”, she is going to have a baby. The book of the musical, by John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), abandons Schuyler’s novel sometime before the child’s arrival, and he completely mutilates Helen, who should be renamed Sybil. The whiplash from racist to beautiful to feminist to victim to the inevitable “Karen” is so extreme that the role should come with a chiropractor for poor Damiano.
There is a scene set in a beauty salon in Harlem, from the novel, where women go to have their hair done. In the novel, Schuyler makes it clear that he doesn’t care what these characters think. He ridicules them just to try to look a little white. In Ridley’s book, women are guilt-ridden to the point of shaving their heads. As the owner of the salon, Lillias White does an amazing job singing from both sides of Madame Sisseretta’s mouth.
And that’s the big difference between the novel and the musical “Black No More.” He wants us to sympathize. Schyuler’s book, on the other hand, takes no prisoners. It describes the characters of all races in terms of reptiles, rodents and pigs. To quote Sondheim, “There is a hole in the world like a great black pit and it is filled with people who are filled with….”
The novel “Black No More” does not want us to like or admire anyone. On the contrary, Schuyler’s obvious disdain for humanity makes him an unlikely source for a musical. In the right hands, the story could be another “rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny”.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera and Schuyler’s novel are devastating indictments of capitalism. In the new musical, however, Ridley’s book delivers a really nice, kind, and conscientious character named Buni (loud-voiced Tamika Lawrence). She’s also a predictable moral compass and replaces a much more intriguing character in the novel, Bunny, who is just as mercenary as her pal Max.
What Ridley and Buni don’t tell us, but Schuyler and Bunny do, is that after the popularity of the Black No More treatment, Harlem emptied out because its citizens can now live anywhere and not being stuck in a ghetto where they pay exorbitant sums. the rents of small unsanitary apartments. In Schuyler’s novel, the United States of America almost comes to a standstill because there is no longer an underclass of people to work as porters, maids, laborers, and caregivers. In Schuyler’s novel, churches and civil rights organizations commodify race for their own profit. And in Schuyler’s novel, with almost everyone now passing for Caucasian, Democrats and Republicans go to extreme lengths to offer absurd genealogical tests in order to re-establish a ruling class.
“Black No More” the musical keeps Schuyler’s parody of the Ku Klux Klan. Do playwrights really think they are brave or adventurous in ridiculing the KKK? Even backslidden Republicans might cheer. What remains of this musical is Schuyler’s parody of the NAACP and his caricatures of WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, among others. As the contractor behind Black No More, Dr. Junius Crookman (Tariq Trotter, being a dross magician) comes across as a mere villain in the musical.
Schuyler was hard to kiss for any group. He wrote “Black No More” during his socialist days, but later in life he shot a real Clarence Thomas. The writer lobbied against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, voted for Barry Goldwater for president, and he firmly believed that apartheid was best left to the South African government.
That story aside, Schuyler’s novel remains wildly funny.
Robert Hofler, senior theater critic for TheWrap, has worked as an editor for Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”, “Party Animals”, and “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos”. His latest book, “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne”, is out now.