AM I BLACK ENOUGH YET? Takes A Humorous Approach To A Serious Subject

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Nathan Maul, Sherard E. Curry and Anna Drehmer in AM I BLACK ENOUGH YET? Directed by Bre Love. Photo Credit:Tesseract Theatre Company

I have a roommate named Lex. He generally keeps to himself but he can be a little demanding at times. For the most part, we get along pretty well. I like all kinds of music, but he generally prefers hip-hop, from Outkast to Beastie Boys, Ludacris to Method Man, Killer Mike to Snoop Dogg. His number one jam is “Boyz in the Hood” by Eazy-E, but he’s happy with anything from the N.W.A. He loves football, he watches WWE wrestling so much he often refers to himself in the third person like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would in his colorful promos. His favorite curse word is the same as Samuel L. Jackson’s, and if you’ve seen any Samuel L. Jackson movies you can probably guess that it’s four syllables long and printed on his wallet. Lex is pretty mellow but he does not like being called a chicken—he’ll get right in your face instantly, ready to throw down. He has a bit of a lisp, like Iron Mike Tyson, but the ladies think it’s cute.

So can you guess what color my roommate is based on that description? Go ahead, take a guess…did you say black? I could see how you might think so. Heavy into the rap game, likes contact sports, swears like the modern John Shaft, and gets angry over minor insults. One might ascribe those traits to a black person. Heck, you could make the same case for persons of any color, yellow Asians, brown Latinos, red Native Americans, or white Europeans. Chances are, though, you read that list of hip-hop artists and thought “black guy.” Well, here’s the truth: He’s not black, and he’s not even human. He’s Ara Severus, otherwise known as a Chestnut-Fronted Macaw, and he’s mostly green. Why the subterfuge? Why not just say that from the get go? I wanted to get you to think about how you perceive culture, sight unseen. Football athletes, Samuel L. Jackson, rap music, bravado, anger—they’re not exclusively the domain of African Americans, but they likely point your mind in that direction.

AM I BLACK ENOUGH YET? is a play by Clinton Johnston, staged by the Tesseract Theatre Company with Bre Love making her directorial debut. The production revolves around a series of vignettes performed by the outstanding cast--Sherard E. Curry, Anna Drehmer, Nathan Maul, Erisha Tyus, and Darrious Varner--that explore the black experience in often humorous but always thought-provoking ways. The cast greets the audience right from the start and deputizes all non-blacks in the audience as honorary black people for the next 90 minutes or so. Pre-existing black folk are now “uber-black,” which is not for me to know, being of the honorary variety. No matter which group you come in as, I believe it is the hope of the playwright and the production that we all leave feeling like we’re part of a greater whole. We’ll come back to that shortly.

I’m not going to get into every skit in the show, but I thought I’d highlight a few that really stood out to me. The opening skit involved an angry Darrious Varner complaining to Anna Drehmer, university housing and admissions director, about his roommate, Sherard E. Curry. He had requested to be housed in the multicultural dorm and have a black roommate. He got one…from Nigeria. He was from the motherland (by way of England) and he was a bigger fan of Sting than Dr. Dre. They both loved football though they were referring to two distinctly different sports. I won’t give away the ending but you see how this is going to go, right? In another skit, Sherard plays a young boy dealing with the pressures of maintaining that schoolyard toughness. He gets into a verbal joust with a white classmate (Anna) while his black friend (Erisha Tyus) has his back. The war of words escalates to the seemingly inevitable Defcon-1 of racial slurs…but it doesn’t come from who you might expect. My two favorite vignettes featured Sherard alternating between being poignantly touching and cleverly funny. As a gay jazz musician in self-imposed exile from 80s America, he engaged Darrious in sharp, realistic banter as he tried to gently sidestep an award from the NAACP. He then filled the role of nearly every demographic group imaginable for the most homogenous town in America, much to the dismay of the sheriff (Nathan Maul) in a scene reminiscent of the great Coen Brothers film FARGO. Peppered between the sketches are some shorter but no less interesting pieces, including a lyrical poem performed by Darrious and a set of racist jokes performed by Erisha. Throughout the program the sexes and races are elastic—Erisha may play a male character or Anna might play a black character.

When I got home from the show, I let Lex out of his cage to stretch his wings; an act that I suddenly realized was not unlike a white prison guard letting a presumably black inmate out into the yard for a short bit of recreation (statistically speaking, unfortunately). The difference here is the guard genuinely loves his brightly colored charge and planned to spend a couple of hours with him sitting on my shoulder while we get caught up on some of our WWE Network shows  and share a bag of pistachios.  He went to his hollow coconut where he forages for treats. I hadn’t filled it yet. Upon finding it empty he mumbled that Samuel L. Jackson curse again. I wondered for a moment if I was black enough for him.

One last thing that that Lex and I share is a love of anything related to outer space. He actually bit me once when I changed the channel from a program about nebulas and distant galaxies. He sat on my knee as we watched the entire run of the original STAR TREK series this past winter. There’s a line from AM I BLACK ENOUGH YET? where the actor mentions that he loves STAR TREK and can talk at length about every facet of the show. I got a kick out of that as just last week I had written a short testimonial about the importance of STAR TREK in my own life, and how the melting pot that was the bridge of the USS ENTERPRISE consisted of a Canadian, a black woman, an Asian man (who was also gay, as it turned out), a Russian (by way of Chicago), a country doctor from the American South, and a blue-blooded, pointy-eared alien (by way of Boston). Despite their many differences, this group worked, lived and survived everything from Tribbles to gods together, striving constantly for a common goal: the betterment of humanity itself.  I think that’s the question Clinton Johnston is ultimately asking, as has Gene Roddenberry and I: Why does being anything other than human ever matter? Lex probably has the answer, but I owe him his nightly almond before bed, and he's not talking until he gets it.

AM I BLACK ENOUGH YET? is a show that I strongly encourage everyone to see, even if you’re purple with green stripes and bright yellow polka dots. The Tesseract Theatre Company won’t turn you away, and like me you’ll find the experience of spending ninety minutes of your life black to be moving, thought-provoking and greatly rewarding. The show runs September 9 – 18 at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission Building on Delmar Boulevard, across from the Pageant. For more information, visit www.TesseractTheatre.org.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0