nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
April 10, 2009
There are a few theatre companies in New York City that, without a doubt, I always know I am going to get interesting, exciting, fun theatre from at each and every show. New Georges is one such company (Dead City, God's Ear, etc.). And even with a bump in the road or two, they've done it again this spring with Angela's Mixtape.
Angela's Mixtape is Eisa Davis's memoir of growing up on the dividing line between Oakland and San Francisco. But Eisa's family is not just any family—it includes her aunt, famous activist in the black community in the civil rights movement, Angela Davis.
We follow Eisa's life through the medium of a metaphorical mixtape, hopping from one track to the next and featuring a number of musical numbers—it's fitting that New Georges teamed up with the Hip Hop Theatre Festival for this venture. As Eisa grows she hits upon the major stages we all experience in life from petulant child, to angsty teenager, to estranged college student, until she finally truly comes to terms with the meaning of her aunt's work both to America, black culture, and to herself.
Davis and director Liesl Tommy attempt in the writing and staging of the play to structure it like a mixtape, which I found kind of confusing and unclear. I don't know how much it serves the story—even when I figured out what they were doing (at about the halfway mark) I still didn't see much of a benefit in that sort of muddled structure—but it does lend itself to Davis and the talented cast's ability to create some beautiful music, which they often do.
As a white male who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in upstate New York, I have many admitted ignorances when it comes to the complexities of African American's history and culture. Just knowing the facts, or being told to feel one way or another, isn't sufficient for the cultural perspective needed to truly empathize with a culture or heritage that is not your own.
This is why I appreciated this play so much. Eisa's struggle to understand where her aunt and mother are coming from (e.g., her Mother repeatedly tells her "You need more black friends!!") has some similarities with the struggles someone like me would have understanding black culture. So in watching this play, we get to see the world through the wonderful eyes of Eisa, who is consistently bewildered growing up on where exactly she and her heritage meet.
When we reach the moment towards the end of the play when Eisa finally reads her aunt's book and begins to understand the struggle, the fight and the emotion involved, we in the audience feel it too. And as specific as Eisa's realization is, I found myself empathizing with her struggle to understand and come to terms with the cultural heritage she was born into.
The acting is, in a word, top-notch. Davis's performance (as herself) is nothing short of spectacular, Linda Powell is a powerful but measured Angela Davis, and Kim Brockington, playing Eisa's mother, carries just the right amount of vulnerability and strength. I also have to mention the fantastic chameleon-like performances from Ayesha Ngaujah and Denise Burse, helping Eisa pull this memoir through.
Despite some structurally confusing bumps in the road, Angela's Mixtape is an important piece of theatre to see. To me, there is nothing more valuable than getting the opportunity to step into someone else's shoes. When we look through other's eyes we find out more about ourselves. This play helps us to do just that, and that is an important mission.