Two very different musicals come together in a bewildering package with The New Group’s “Black No More,” which opened Tuesday night off Broadway.
Part of the show is an occasional satire about a fictional 1930s device that can turn black people white. The poetic opening narration is reminiscent of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors”. But what follows is an unnecessarily explosive melodrama that makes “Les Miserables” sound like “Blue’s Clues.”
Duration 2h30, with an intermission. The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
Choosing both paths makes “Black No More,” based on George Schuyler’s 1931 novel Harlem Renaissance, a deeply uncomfortable experience for its audience — not because the fascinating material probes the ugliness of racism, but because of the bad theatrical management of history. The show is an irreparable mess.
The beginning of “Black No More” is mostly in line with Schuyler’s novel: a vicious satire that was ahead of its time in its criticism of whites, blacks, and class and racial disparities.
Max (Brandon Victor Dixon) is a black man from Harlem who, disenchanted with life, signs up to use Dr. Junius Crookman’s (Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of the Roots) experimental Black No More machine to change his color from skin. In the one smart choice of the night, Dixon’s appearance isn’t altered by a mask or makeup; we use our imagination to imagine his new look based on how he is described.
Now named Matthew, he moves to Atlanta to search for a white woman named Helen (Jennifer Damiano) whom he danced with on New Years Eve in a juke joint. (In the book, Helen only says, “I don’t dance with [N-word].” The musical changes that up to fleshing out a more sympathetic character and making her, I don’t know, just half racist? It does not work.)
When Matthew arrives in Atlanta, he finds Helen in a Ku Klux Klan-like group called the Nordica Knights led by her father (Howard McGillin). Matthew joins them and moves up the ladder. The knights wear cream-colored suits, sing silly old songs, and act, appropriately for this story, cartoonishly. Thus ends the satirical part.
Funnyish at times, the humor isn’t skillfully enough handled on stage. And lyrics sung by racist white southerners – “God blessed the Caucasians / God blessed this plantation / [N-word], Jews and Asians / Are all less than crustaceans” — disturbing and upsetting without being profound. The N-word is thrown in too casually. And while, of course, it establishes some characters as evil, it’s also used mostly by white characters in up-tempo songs and raps. Nobody wants that.
Then comes the overworked dramatic part, in which you can feel lyricist and co-composer Trotter compromising not to stray too far from what we’ve come to expect from a traditional musical. Almost none of the gonzo ending – there are enough endings here for an entire theater season – comes from the book.
Yet somehow, from that airy read, some 36 forgettable hip-hop and jazz songs played. (No wonder, since the score has four composers: Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters.) Bill T. Jones tends to over-choreograph them, while director Scott Elliott under-choreographs them. They’re played against Derek McLane’s backdrop of a brick wall with giant red and blue letters that read “HARLEM” and “NORDICA” depending on where we are. Uh, we don’t need it to say we’re in Upper Manhattan or at a Klan meeting; the difference is obvious.
The tunes are delivered by one of New York’s finest actors – each person is a glorious singer and actor. The musical is a colossal waste of talent.
Dixon, who has been on Broadway in “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along,” has the clearest role, but the undercooked supporting characters tend to have better music. He has a strange straight talk about ending hate that – even if the audience agrees with him – comes out of nowhere.
There’s the amazing Ephraim Sykes (who had played Michael Jackson in “MJ” on Broadway, but dropped out due to scheduling) playing a friend of Max’s named Agamemnon (mentioned in the novel only three times) , which can hardly do anything .
Another inflated role is that of hair salon owner Sisseretta, played by the powerfully-voiced Tony winner Lillias White. The moral center of the musical is furious at what the Black No More machine is doing to its beloved Harlem, and that’s about it.
Tamika Lawrence is a hit as Buni, Max’s best friend in New York, who comes to Atlanta to find him. Her singing is otherworldly, but as written in John Ridley’s book that changes the role to a female, her bow is a mess.
Watch Spike Lee’s excellent film “BlacKkKlansman,” about the true story of a black FBI agent who joined the Ku Klux Klan to spy on them, for a masterclass in how to turn laughter out of ridiculous racists in gasps of horror. “Black No More,” which has dreamy Broadway aspirations, should be in there.