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Black playwrights command the stage in thrilling festival at Mixed Blood

November 19, 2018

It arrived without fanfare but qualifies as one of the seasons most exciting and engaging offerings. Prescient Harbingers, a three-play festival dreamed up by Mixed Blood Theatre artistic director Jack Reuler, had its marathon opening Saturday in Minneapolis.

In seven-plus hours of provocative, muscular theater, these hip, smart and hyper-contemporary plays wrestle urgently with themes including workplace violence, police killings of unarmed black men, and cultural authenticity and appropriation.

With wit and insight, they show the creative prowess of a trio of black playwrights: Idris Goodwin, whose Bars and Measures played the Jungle Theater in 2016; MacArthur Foundation genius Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose Neighbors and An Octoroon have been staged at Mixed Blood, and newcomer to the Twin Cities Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm.

Goodwin, who writes about and within the sensibilities of hip-hop, takes on the question of what an artist owes to her or his community especially a white rapper who excels in a black-cultivated art form in Hype Man, a Break Beat Play.

In Hype Man, DJ Peep One (Rachel Cognata) is late to the studio. Rapper Pinnacle (Michael Knowlton), who is white, and his black sideman Verb (Kadahj Bennett) are annoyed because theyre there to rehearse for the biggest opportunity of their career: a guest spot on The Tonight Show. After Peep One arrives, they find out the reason for the traffic snarls that caused her tardiness: A black kid driving to see his grandmother in the hospital was shot 18 times.

The news shakes Verb and Peep One. It also affects Pinnacle, but he remains focused on his big break, and his brand. The incident calls out different things in each member of the trio, with Verb taking it the furthest, and becoming a freedom fighter.

Hype Man is a must-see import from Bostons Company One Theatre, remounted tautly by director Shawn LaCount. Goodwins writing is clever, lethal and cold. The raps are tight. And the journey comes from a place of real talk, as the young people say, even airing some of the shortcomings of the form around gender.

The three performers deliver at the top of their game, building tension and drawing emotion so you feel that what youre seeing is not so much a simulacrum of a thing, but the thing itself. And the role of the hype man, an unsung but essential part of hip-hop best exemplified by Flavor Flav of Public Enemy fame, is explored with finesse.

A Chappelle-esque setup

Chisholms play, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, also is hip-hop-themed, but with a mixed-race family vibe that recalls Diffrent Strokes. Set in Baltimore, which is known for its murder rate but also as the childhood home of rap great Tupac Shakur, the plot orbits Marquis, a young black man adopted by white mother Debra.

A student at Achievement Heights prep school, Marquis (played by the versatile and gifted William Thomas Hodgson) does not know that he cant get away with the same things as his white best friends Hunter (sly, funny character actor Tom Reed) and Fielder (MacGregor Arney as an annoyingly whiny wimp). When the trio does stupid stuff, whats considered a boyish prank for Hunter and Fielder is a crime for Marquis.

In fact, when we first see him, hes in jail, alongside Tru (Nathan Barlow, showing strength and vigor), a street tough who has knowledge he is willing to share. Using her white privilege, Debra (Bonni Allen in a witty, excellent turn) springs Marquis and Tru from the clink, seeing in Tru a possible mentor to teach her son about black masculinity.

Its a Dave Chappelle-esque setup teaching blackness to an African-American man whos culturally white and director Thomas W. Jones II exploits it for a lot of laughs. And if its laden with stereotypes, its because those are the things that are projected onto Marquis.

But Hooded also turns the trope on its head in an ingenious way. White Hunter takes on the trappings of gangsta rap blackness, including rope chains and easy use of the b- and N-words. Of course, he has to die. How it happens is a bit of a cop-out, but while playwright Chisholm could have made a stronger statement, part of the pleasure of a show like this is how it launches deep conversation.

The cast deserves kudos, including Bruce Young as a black police officer, and Kendall Kent, Colleen Lafeber and Kathryn Fumie, who are rollickingly funny as a trio of prep schoolgirls.

A workplace shooting

Jacobs-Jenkins Gloria is the subtlest and starkest of the three plays. Its about sophisticated white people who use wit and manners to point away from their naked desires and shortcomings.

Set in New York, Gloria revolves around a woman who is more a ghost than a real presence in the show. Gloria works at a magazine where shes an outcast who stares oddly at people and makes mouth noises that should be words. One day, out of nowhere, she goes ballistic.

Then the survivors take to writing books and profiting from the tragedy.

Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, and well performed by a company that includes Allen as the title character and a survivor of the shooting, Ernest Briggs as a fact-checker, and Tom Reed as the only co-worker who was nice to Gloria, the show exposes ambitious climbers who deal with technological disruption and crises in their idiosyncratic ways. Its an indictment, in subtle ways, of a mercantile ethic that would sell anything for profit.

But it also shows how the conditions that lead to a mass shooting can seem so, well, ordinary.

Gloria is a play laden with surprises in a festival full of them. The playwrights combine deft, incisive writing with affecting stagecraft to give us refractions of our contested present. While the festival title posits these as harbingers, they are less about whats coming than whats here, percolating uneasily in our souls.

Prescient Harbingers Gloria: By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Lavina Jadhwani. 7:30 p.m. Fri.; 4 p.m. Sat.; 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 2. Hooded: By Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Thomas W. Jones II. 7 p.m. Sat.; 4 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 2. Hype Man: By Idris Goodwin, directed by Shawn LaCount. 7:30 p.m. Wed.; 9:30 p.m. Sat.; 1:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 2. Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St., Mpls. Tickets: $35. 612-338-6131, mixedblood.com.

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