At the end of Sunday’s matinee performance of The Black Renaissance (A Musical Against Racism), playwright, director, and founder of Black Ensemble Theatre Jackie Taylor took the stage with such vibrancy and passion that she seemed to reach out to every audience member individually. Her brief but rousing speech called the audience to action, both in terms of tearing down racism and, in a moment of levity, in donating to her theatre company. Yet the two previous hours of theatre, Taylor’s most recent original undertaking, did not have the same impact as its creator; the simplistic structure of The Black Renaissance, coupled with its lofty subject matter undertaking, makes the show more stagnant than dynamic, more of an experience for the audience to watch than to truly take in.
The show begins with a video projection; a speech from former President Obama as he advocates for inclusion and acceptance. The uplifting words are quickly juxtaposed with a more somber image: Donald Trump sporting his trademark “Make America Great Again” hat. The pairing is emblematic of what the show attempts to do as it traces the pattern of progress followed by the desperate struggle to preserve white supremacy throughout our nation’s history.
However, to present such a complex, at times nonlinear narrative in two hours is a major initiative, to say the least, and that makes it difficult for The Black Renaissance to dive much deeper than the surface. Starting with the institution of slavery and ending in present day America with a reflection on current race relations, the show is forced to skim the surface of many issues and to present these topics in a way that feels like a brief and, at times, vague history lesson.
This feeling of being ‘taught’ is only furthered by the show’s staging and its technical elements. The large ensemble cast, specifically in the second act, remains in two lines throughout much of the play. A soloist might move forward to center stage or the two lines may briefly form into a circle, but for the most part, our ensembles feels like teachers presenting to us at the front of a classroom. Projections of quotes, historical images, and definitions only add to this effect.
Is there value to defining these terms--to talking about institutionalized racism and examining the meaning of other, as our ensemble refers to them, ‘isms?’ Of course. But is there a more dynamic, engaging way to present these ideas? Even with the impressive range of instrumentation and powerful vocals by the ensemble, I think so.
I will still join the renaissance. It’s a cause worth fighting for and talking about, but the play itself is not quite as powerful as its ideas.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Black Renaissance continues through November 19th at Black Ensemble Theatre. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.