By Tony Jenkins; Directed by Tony Jenkins and Chessa Metz
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Spoken Word/Dance
Runs through 8.20.16
VENUE #15: SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
by Sarah Weber on 8.21.16
Aaron Marshall-Bobb, Malik Squire, Skyler James, Ibn Days, Tony Jenkins, Evan Reiser, and Justin Campbell in Black Magic.
BOTTOM LINE: A choreopoem of seven slain black men who prove, though they may be gone, their voices are permanent.
Sometimes the best resistance to oppression is celebration: recognizing one’s successes in the face of a system that would rather put you down. Tony Jenkins’ Black Magic is a beautifully sharp account of America’s history of violence against black men, and how the African American community keeps thriving against all odds. Or, as Jenkins aptly puts it, “black magic” is “how we can disappear and still be here forever.”
Black Magic is a seamless string of spoken word poetry, songs, and dance—a “choreopoem,” as coined by Ntozake Shange when describing her acclaimed work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Giving life to Jenkins’ poetry is a wildly talented ensemble of men, including Aaron Marshall-Bobb, Malik Squire, Skyler James, Ibn Days, Evan Reiser, Justin Campbell, and Jenkins himself. Each has a distinct voice with a striking presence on its own, but also melts effortlessly with the others. Couple this with Chessa Metz’s choreography and we get theatre that electrifies every possible nerve-ending of its audience.
The performers represent slain black men who are now sharing their thoughts and feelings to the audience, their loved ones, their murderers, and to those that maintain America’s racism. It starts with the men pantomiming their way to a movie theatre. As they watch, one of them describes the kind of movie he’d like to see—one that doesn’t rely on caricatures of black people, but that simply portrays black people as people, where having black skin is a given and not a singular and defining character trait. As the description expands and deepens, the rest of the ensemble interacts with both the poem and with the film they’re watching, adding life and setting to an otherwise bare stage. Every poem thereafter follows a similar format; while one or a few speak, the rest move, dance, or observe. And the poems are addressed to a specific person, such as a mother, a sister, “my gay son,” or a police officer, shining light on the people effected by violence against black men.
This comes to a peak when the ensemble begins to sing “I was born into the wreckage,” a song and dance that both celebrates and calls attention to African American history, struggles, and art. Black Magic ends with a silent scene where the men have dawned red clown noses—a welcoming and warm image—but then quickly turns frenzied when a glove they find goes from being a fun toy to violently taking control over Jenkins. It turns his hand into a weapon he cannot control, and it’s up to the rest of the ensemble to decide how and when to intervene.
Some of theatre’s most beautiful moments are when the vision and talents of everyone involved collaborate to near-perfection, to the point that the piece isn’t simply a performance but a mirror that enchants, inspires, and questions its audience. Black Magic achieves this masterfully. Metz’s choreography both enhances and adds depth to Jenkin’s poetry; as co-directors they find a way to make both words and movement one package. You can’t have the choreography without the poetry, and vice versa. And, of course, a good production becomes great when its performers have clearly poured as much love and passion into the project as the creators.
So if you have a mere forty minutes to spare, please go see Black Magic. No matter your background, this piece will shake both your heart and your mind. Yes, the subject matter is a difficult pill to swallow, but once the actors exit and the house lights return you’ll have more inspiration and food-for-thought than you’ll know what to do with.
(Black Magic plays at VENUE #15: SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, through August 20, 2016. The running time is 40 minutes. Performances are Fri 8/12 at 5; Mon 8/15 at 2; Wed 8/17 at 7; Fri 8/19 at 7:15; and Sat 8/20 at 5:45. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit blackmagicplay.wordpress.com.)
Black Magic is by Tony Jenkins. Co-Directed by Tony Jenkins and Chessa Metz. Choreography is by Chessa Metz. Lighting Design is by Abby May.
The cast is Aaron Marshall-Bobb, Malik Squire, Skyler James, Ibn Days, Evan Reiser, Justin Campbell.