Unsung Black history and exceptional musicality in ‘Mexodus’ at Mosaic

The musical takes us on a sonically immersive sensory ride of sound and light with solid storytelling and performances.

Musicals featuring Hip Hop don’t have much grey area these days; they’re either Hamilton or not. Hamilton broadened the theater audience, which helped launch the careers of formerly less celebrated actors into the mainstream. The success of the musical Hamilton arguably may be one of the reasons the Mexodus will be wildly successful.

Mexodus functions to imaginatively explore the true, barely spoken history of the Underground Railroad into Mexico. The play doesn’t rely on spectacle or subversion as major themes. Instead, it takes us on a sonically immersive sensory ride of sound and light with solid storytelling and performances by two complementary actors: Nygel D. Robinson and Brian Quijada. The musical directed by David Mendizábal makes its world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company in a co-production with Baltimore Center Stage.

Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson in ‘Mexodus.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

Mexodus sets the stage with a scenic design by Riw Rakkulchon with elements from the 1800s during the time of slavery in the United States and some time after the Mexican-American war with hints of modern twist like instruments, vinyl scratch set, and what looks like an MPC for making beats. Imagine dark-colored wood accents and other natural elements with a DJ booth in the center of the stage. The two performers address the audience as themselves, warming up the crowd like the opening at a Hip Hop show. They display their musicianship, rhymes, and stage presence in the style of old music-producing videos found on YouTube from the era of Ryan Leslie. Robinson blends R&B, Hip Hop, Gospel, Blues, Jazz and Negro spirituals effortlessly. Quijada brings the Latin element to those genres and highlights a bit of House music as well.

Robinson has a voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. He commands the stage like all great performers tend to do. As he moves in and out of his character, Henry, it becomes clear we’re in for a treat. Robinson is a superstar with unmatched skill and precision. He takes excellent care of Henry, an enslaved man separated from his family on a Texas plantation, by honoring his pain, grief, hope, and humanness in the face of dehumanization. The slave narrative of Henry is a familiar story of looming death sometimes swift, or occurring under 100 sunrises and sunsets on a cotton field from the brutality of free labor. He is forced to run away to try to take back his life, which from birth was never his own.

In the transition from Henry’s story to Carlos’ story, we’re treated to a riveting combination of set design, light, and sound as Henry “wades through the water”; the back of the stage opens to a flowy-like material glowing with blue light and the sound of deep water. The spotlight shifts to Carlos, a former Mexican soldier who has lost everything he once knew after the Mexican-American war. Quijada delivers a compelling performance. His Spanish guitar matches the soulfulness of “Wade in the Water.” He concentrates on the curling of his brows to emphasize the seriousness and grief-stricken nature of Carlos. Henry and Carlos share much in common through the themes of pain and loss while also realizing that they need each other.

Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson in ‘Mexodus.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

This play makes a hurling attempt to share an oral history of the Underground Railroad through Mexico and the notion of solidarity and allyship. What happens when two groups of people work together against white supremacy? Unfortunately, this play misses the mark by not directly confronting anti-Blackness and, as a result, the barriers that prevent true solidarity. It begs the question, Where does art fail? Are the limitations coming from the artists or the art form? Can an audience truly comprehend and deal with the discomfort from the devastating, violent nature of anti-Blackness if confronted head-on? Quijada hints at the monster when he recounts a story of his family stopping at a gas station on the Southside of Chicago, where he learns that Blackness equals fear for many people. Is this a play of possibilities? Despite the Underground Railroad in Mexico, the country has a deep history of anti-Blackness that persists today. When a play is heralded as possibly the next best thing since Hamilton, these conversations are overshadowed by the soundtrack of the musical, and to be fair, the music in Mexodus is quite good.

Mexodus accomplishes its goals as an exciting play that balances shared history and exceptional musicality. This is what you hope for and expect from a musical: to be entertained and maybe to walk away having learned something new. Rest assured, this production is worth seeing!

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

Mexodus plays through June 15, 2024, presented by Mosaic Theatre Company with Baltimore Center Stage performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($42, Thursday; $53, Friday; $70, Saturday and Sunday) are available online.

Ticket Discounts:
Rush Tickets: Limited amount available via walk-up cash purchase one hour before start of performance.
Senior Discount (65+): Save 10% with discount code: Senior
Student Rate: $20 tickets with discount code: STUDENT
Military and First Responder Rate: Save 10% with discount code: HERO

The program for Mexodus is online here.

Mexodus
A World Premiere Co-Production with Baltimore Center Stage
Written and performed by Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson
Directed by David Mendizábal
Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon
Lighting Designer: Mextly Couzin
Costume Designer: David Mendizábal
Sound Designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Stage Manager: Shayna O’Neill

SEE ALSO:
Electrifying ‘Mexodus’ sets erased Black American history to hip-hop, at Baltimore Center Stage (review of the premiere at Baltimore Center Stage by Colleen Kennedy, March 24, 2024)

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