nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 21, 2006
Daniel Beaty's explosive, affecting solo play Emergence-SEE! may be the most important new American drama since Angels in America. In a taut, riveting hour-and-a-half, it paints a portrait of our particular political moment with astonishing incisiveness, revealing hidden or repressed truths and pointing optimistically toward a bright tomorrow that embraces bitter yesterdays and apathetic todays without being stymied by either. Beaty's a slam poet, and most of the characters in this extraordinary play are poets either by design or by nature or both; the words he gives them to say hearken back to ancestors as diverse and encompassing as Kushner and Hansberry and Shakespeare and whoever made up the story of Goldilocks. On top of that, Beaty's performance as no fewer than 35 different characters in Emergence-SEE! is a tour de force of the highest order. This is acting and playwriting of the deepest humanity; as far as I'm concerned it's a show everybody ought to see.
The story begins at Liberty Island, where, mysteriously and suddenly, a 400-year-old slave ship has risen from New York harbor and emerged at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Havoc immediately erupts, and Beaty (as actor and playwright) captures perfectly the weird chaos of media madness circa 2006 as reporters, scholars ("slave-ologists"), slave ship souvenir vendors, church groups, activists of various stripes, and a whole slew of ordinary people all arrive at the scene to try to usurp some of its power.
Not at the island are the two young black men who most need to be there, however: Rodney, a 30-year-old slam poet, and Freddie, his younger gay brother, are still in Harlem, just finding out that the man who has climbed on top of the slave ship (to the consternation of the authorities) is their father, Reginald. Reginald was a university professor, but after his wife became the victim of a random murder his rationality started to waver. Now he's doing God-knows-what on this ship, and probably risking arrest or worse, while his sons try to scoot from the other end of Manhattan island and bring him home.
So Emergence-SEE! offers several simultaneous story lines: we watch Rodney search for and then locate Freddie, and then both of them as they arrive at Liberty Island; we witness random moments among the crowd on the island; we spend time with Reginald on the ship, where he comes face-to-face with the specter of African Chief Kofi, a 400-year-old ghost of one of the victims chained on the ship when it sunk; and we also stop in at Sharita's Poetry Cafe in Harlem, where Rodney is supposed to be performing in a grand slam championship.
To the immense credit of Beaty, director Kenny Leon, set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Michael Chybowksi, and sound designers Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV, it is always 100% clear where we are and who we're with as the play progresses. Characters come and go and often turn up after we've heard a lot about them, such as Anton, a Jamaican ne'er-do-well who's decided that since everybody's bones on the inside are white, he's white on the outside as well:
Me girlfriend, she say me lazy, me don't wanna do no work. Me say, "Me a rich white man. Me jus' waitin' for the universe to notify the bank."
Meanwhile, downtown at the Statue of Liberty, we meet Clifford, an Ivy League professional who's having trouble understanding all the fuss about slave ships and history:
Reconnect? You don't need to go back to Africa. Reconnect...to that black man in the park begging money for food. Reconnect to that black woman prostituting herself to keep a roof over her head. Reconnect to those black kids in the orphanages who are like four and five and nine years old living with AIDS who nobody wants to adopt....They are the products of those slave dungeons.
And then there's Bessie, 70-something years old, watching over the slave ship with a contingent of grandmothers; and Clarissa, her own granddaughter, who broke at least my heart telling us a fairy tale of her own manufacture, "Kinky Head and the Three Bears."
We also get to hear the entire poetry slam—four remarkable, very different contestants who are all searching for ways to emerge into themselves through the vibrant inventiveness of their language. They're a spectacularly impressive lot, but they really aren't that much more articulate than the other characters in this story. Beaty's work is breathtaking in giving voice—so many voices—to people who don't often get a chance to speak to us from the stage. We discover history lost or deliberately obscured, and we discover a present that's subject to the same fate; if only for placing the invisible and the unheard centerstage, this is significant theatre.
But there's even more going on here, as Beaty connects to what's in every human heart, a refrain that's been sung since suffering began. For me, the center of this enormously epic play lies in something that the grandmother Bessie says, echoing the climactic speech of A Raisin in the Sun:
I been here with my grandbaby Clarissa all day, since this morning when this slave ship first arised and there's this one particular story that keeps comin' to my mind about a village in west Africa with very little conflict and even less crime. You know why? When a person in this village commits a crime—steals or lies, harms his neighbor—the entire village forms a circle around this single man and reminds him of the good deeds he's done in the past. The entire village reminds this single fallen man of the moments when he was most beautiful. America is one big messy village and we goin' have to love each other back to wholeness.
Beaty, just 30 years old, is astoundingly wise, and this play of his is loaded with his potent and visionary wisdom. Go see it.