Monique Carboni/The New Group
A new musical inspired by an Afro-futurist satirical novel titled More black, opens off-Broadway Tuesday, presented by the New Group. Set during the Depression, the book and musical examines race in America with an outrageous plot – an inventor proposes a machine that turns black people white.
In a dapper suit, Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of the Roots, appears center stage to set the scene. Sitting in a barbershop chair, he raps, “It’s Harlem/The Big Apple’s Core/Seventy or so years before there were Apple stores.”
Trotter wrote the lyrics and much of the music, which ranges from hip hop and R&B to jazz and folk. And he plays Dr. Junius Crookman, inventor of the Black No More machine, which will make everything Black white – for $50. According to Trotter, the doctor thinks “this Black No More device is the solution to race relations in America. I think the line is ‘to solve the American race problem as we know it’. But yeah, you know, I don’t don’t think a solution will ever be found.”
And it’s the blurred area-as a premise of More black, which features a screenplay by Academy Award-winning John Ridley. The 1931 novel, by George Schuyler, takes a no-holds-barred attitude toward not only white supremacists and politicians, but also the thinly veiled characters of the Harlem Renaissance, whom choreographer Bill T. Jones finds offensive. “When I read the novel, I have to admit I was a little pissed off about it,” Jones said. “Yeah, I like bad boys too. I don’t like smart asses, of course, and especially when it’s black people making fun of black people.”
So the challenge for the creative team, especially the writers, was to take the story from broadly satirical to something with a beating heart, says director Scott Elliott: “I think what they have invented is a truly fascinating morality tale.”
The central character, Max, is a man from the city of Harlem, but he has been plagued by racism in his work and his romance. So he chooses to go through the Black No More process and ends up in Atlanta, where he becomes a powerful figure in a white supremacist organization, called the Knights of Nordica.
“It’s all about perception literally and figuratively,” says Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Max. “People see him as white. He sees himself as white, but it’s still the same guy making the same mistakes. Nothing has changed.”
To drive home the point, there is no physical black-to-white transformation on stage. Scott Elliott says he considered devices like white clothes or even white makeup, but decided it would get in the way of the story.
“I thought it would be ridiculous…because first of all, you can’t really do it,” explains the director. “It would still be a facade. Right? And how do you have a facade on your main character whose heart you want to locate, whose guts you want to locate?”
In a powerful moment in the second act, Max and Crookman – who has gone white and goes by the name Blackmon – meet and sing a song called “It Takes One to Know One”. As the number progresses, the entire ensemble—male and female, black and white—enters the stage, wearing the exact same blue costumes. “Now they’re all kind of mirroring themselves and thinking ‘who are you? ” says choreographer Bill T. Jones. “So I think it’s a brilliant moment in satire, but also something that musical theater can do with a lot of verve. I’m very proud of this moment.”
Tamika Lawrence plays Max’s friend Buni, who travels from Harlem to Atlanta to convince him to reveal his true identity. She says the show is emotionally engaging, with a love story and a tragedy, but it also tackles broader themes: “I think it makes us ask a lot of questions about ourselves and about the roles we play in this capitalist, sometimes hedonistic, hegemonic American society.”
And while the show has Broadway ambitions, Tariq Trotter hasn’t watered down his own sense of sociopolitical commentary, which he brings to the Roots and his solo work, in the show’s songs. He says: “I was able to rely on the same principles that I have always followed as an artist.”