The world-premiere musical adaptation of author George S. Schuyler’s 1931 Afrofuturist novel Black No More, by John Ridley (book), Tariq Trotter (music and lyrics), and Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters (music), playing a strictly limited Off-Broadway engagement with The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, presents a riveting and resonant examination of racism and Black identity in America.
Set during the Harlem Renaissance in NYC (which spanned the 1920s-30s) and the era of “Jim Crow Laws” in the South (which led to the Great Migration of six million African Americans northward, beginning in 1916), the production combines sci-fi with history, period-style music and dance with present-day spoken word and rap, humor with tragedy, and an emphatic message that remains timely today, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the shocking rise in violent hate crimes: STOP THE HATRED.
A large ensemble cast of top-notch singers and dancers is led by the Broadway star power of Brandon Victor Dixon (Shuffle Along), Lillias White (The Life), Tamika Lawrence (Caroline, or Change), Ephraim Sykes (Ain’t Too Proud), Jennifer Damiano (Next to Normal), and Howard McGillin (The Phantom of the Opera). Together they follow the journey of Max Disher (Dixon), who, after meeting Helen Givens (Damiano) in a Harlem nightclub and sharing an attraction with the visiting Georgia native, decides, in order to pursue their inter-racial relationship, to become the first person to be transformed from Black to white by way of a new machine invented by Dr. Junius Crookman (Trotter), guaranteed to “solve the American race problem.” Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
Instead of providing the socio-economic opportunities he sought and bringing an end to the odious bigotry of the South, it puts Max in an untenable position of lying to everyone he meets in Georgia and assuming a hateful anti-Black stance, after learning that Helen’s father, Revered Givens (played by McGillin), is the militant leader of The Knights of Nordica (a fictional organization based on the KKK). It’s a power he turns over to Max (now going by his white name of Matthew Fisher), along with his daughter’s hand in marriage, to the outrage of his own virulently racist son Ashby (Theo Stockman). Though Helen doesn’t recognize Matthew as the man she met in Harlem, and abhors her family’s espoused racism, as a woman in a male-dominated society, she is powerless to do anything (adding the subplot of sexism to the central theme of racial inequity and intolerance).
Meanwhile, back in Harlem, Max’s best friends Buni (Lawrence) and Agamemnon (Sykes), and Harlem matriarch, hairstylist, and singer Madame Sisseretta (White), are worried about his new life, which has triggered countless others to follow his lead (including Dr. Crookman, for the money), forsaking their roots, undergoing the transformation, and becoming Black no more, consequently depleting the population and rich culture of their neighborhood. When they try to convince him to return home to his true identity, his growing concern over his wife’s pregnancy (and delivery of a baby that would expose him as Black), leads Max to ponder if he’s living his best life or his best lie, and to make a critical decision that sets off an explosive climax.
Directed by The New Group’s founding Artistic Director Scott Elliott, the show is filled with powerhouse performances (White’s solos are among the standouts, as are Trotter’s narrations set to a beat) in a range of musical genres (musical supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Waters; music direction and dance music arrangements by Zane Mark) and dance (choreographed by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones) that testify to the richness of Black culture, contrast with the styles of the white characters, and make Max realize that he no longer fits in anywhere. It is also filled with belligerent epithets, racially-motivated insults, and physical attacks that are shocking to hear and difficult to watch (fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight House) – though it should be noted that the actors’ skin tones remain the same before and after their characters’ transformation, avoiding the use of whiteface (which would recall the offensive theatrical history of blackface) and relying instead on the distinctive portrayals through voice and demeanor, at which Dixon is masterful.
The show is presented on a mostly bare stage (set design by Derek McLane), using monumental block letters to identify Harlem and Nordica, and neon, strobes, and spotlights to electrify the performances (lighting by Jeff Croiter). Costumes (by Qween Jean) and wig and hair design (by Nikiya Mathis) are effective in capturing the characters’ styles.
In light of the length and intensity of the show, some of the thematically repetitive scenes and numbers (a total of 35) could be cut, without losing the momentous message, but tightening its impact. And the ending, though uplifting, is hard to believe after what we just witnessed. But Black No More is both entertaining in its exciting music and dance, and important in its condemnation of hatred, betrayal, and bigotry (against all minorities) as a means of securing the power and money of the elite.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
Black No More plays through Sunday, February 27, 2022, at The New Group, performing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $38-113), call (917) 935-4242, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.