In an essay in her new collection Let It Scream, Let It Burn, Leslie Jamison asks, “How does the morally outraged mind begin to arrange its materials?” She’s writing about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which began as an article about three families of white tenant farmers in the post-Depression American South, and grew into an indictment of the voyeuristic impulses of journalism and possibly narrative itself. Jamison uses Agee to look more generally at the process of witnessing itself, at what it means to construct a narrative of enormous moral import, what are the stakes of doing so, and how inevitable are the incompleteness and insufficiency of such a task
How much greater, then, are both the stakes and the moral import–and the necessity of the task even if it must be incomplete–when the material being reckoned with is four hundred years of suppressed American history, and when that history’s constant refrain is injustice: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the “new Jim Crow” (in the words of Michelle Alexander on the criminal justice system), redlining…to name just a few of the lowest low points?
2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in the what would become the United States of America. Zoey Martinson’s The Black History Museum … According to the United States of America, an immersive theater piece that is performed in both theater spaces, as well as lobbies, hallways, offices, and other public rooms, at HERE, traces the history of black America, while also interrogating the very notion of blackness and catalyzing its audience through a set of participatory experiences that are both better-thought-out and more effective than most. (Among them, handing out an “honorary black card” along with the ticket, and specifically noting that the audience, for the duration of the show, should be “acting at [their] blackest.”)
Black History Museum is among powerful company in navigating this reckoning right now: To give just a few examples, The New York Times’s 1619 Project excavates hidden material in the history we all (think we) know, showing the inextricable materiality of the African American narrative throughout the history of the American economy, its democratic institutions, its healthcare, its music, “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th uses the single lens of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which abolished slave labor “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”) to examine the state of race in America via the criminal justice system.
Black History Museum stands out in two ways. First, Martinson’s direction and concept mix tones and genres rampantly, from sketch comedy that wouldn’t feel out of place on Saturday Night Live–if only SNL ever had enough black cast members to populate an entire sketch–to the urgent cadences of slam poetry to the anguished rhythms of modern dance. (The Middle Passage section, in which the audience is penned into a big cage of rough wood–designed by D’Vaughn Agu–while dancers, wearing bells to mimic the sound of chains, reach for help and end up being beaten and defeated, is one of the most viscerally powerful, with Francesca Harper’s choreography aided by Brittany Bland’s projection design.) And second, it’s indicting not only the historical narrative of America that constantly stamps out and stamps on black history, but also the devouring maw of capitalism that subsumes and commodifies the resistance to that dominant narrative.
The piece uses two guides to bring you through the 400 years of black history in America–they’re how the morally outraged mind brings the audience into the world of the piece . The Guide–the literal guide to the imaginary museum–is a “magical mulatto” by the name of Jasper Sasparilla (Robert King, also a writer of the piece), who aims to make the audience feel at ease, and seeks throughout to find a better outcome: to enjoin the audience, in the end, to figure out what comes next with an optimistic spirit of positivity. The Descendant (Kareem M. Lucas, likewise also a writer) is the link between the Guide’s upbeat presence and the much darker strands of the story; he is the “Lookout, the One Who Sees that which we call the Past.”
The play can’t, of course, be comprehensive in a 2-hour timeframe, but it hits key points incisively: The Founding Fathers, all played with hearty joviality by black performers wearing half-whiteface makeup and half a powdered wig, representing half Benjamin Franklin (Marcia Berry) or John Adams (Landon Woodson) or Thomas Jefferson (Langston Darby) and half their slaves. The height of the slave economy, from Middle Passage to slave auction. Reconstruction, conceived as a rigged game show (hosted by an acerbic yet perfectly pitched Toni Ann DeNoble) which the audience plays. The modern age of “diversity training” and “political correctness,” played out as almost a diorama and shown as nothing more than an exercise in soothing white guilt and white fears. (The jokes are perhaps overly broad here, but Langston Darby and Tabatha Gayle capture perfectly the demeanor and attitude of the completely unselfaware white person who feels “discriminated against” because he voted for Trump or who was “scarred” by not being allowed to touch a black coworker’s hair.) The reclamation of black history and black cultural production. The “war on crime” as it’s played out over the past forty years of American history.
Black History Museum wants to make you feel every one of those moments–albeit often leavened with humor–and Martinson is smart about using the discomforts and anxieties of participatory theater to enhance that experience; I’m often not a fan of being asked to become part of the show, but every bit of discomfort here seems purposeful and also designed to generate a shared experience. I found it least successful at its most “museum-like”: a series of visual art installations (by Brandan “B-mike” Odums, Shariffa Ali, Paula Champagne, Liliana Hendricks, Laetitia Ky, Yusef Miller, and Kalin Norman), where the audience is left to its own devices to wander through a series of rooms and hallways containing the installations and listen to recorded tracks that accompany the videos, transcribed letters, and other materials. The art, especially Ky’s photographs of hair sculptures, is wonderful, but the space is awkward, and the individual headphones fragment the shared experience that the performance has been building.
Given all the piece is trying to do, it’s no surprise that at times it fails to successfully juggle its competing impulses: to present an actual museum; to educate; to outrage; to gut-punch; to entertain; to indict; to mock. It’s more successful at some of these than others; the parts combine to an uneasy, but important, whole. It’s hard to look at the state of America in 2019 and feel optimism, to carry on in a “legacy of survival and love,” as we are exhorted by the Guide to do before leaving, rather than the Descendant’s vision of fire and the blood-streaked weight of history. I admire the creators of Black History Museum for urging us to do exactly that.