Marc Anthony Thompson Transforms Minstrel Satire to Black Joy
by Korinne Nickings
The lights go down … and darkness fills the room as I listen to the sounds of screams, and sloshing of ocean waves and I am instantly transported to the transatlantic voyage of Africans in chains.
Stage lights rise and I see two African men standing on stage, dressed like Tarzan’s brothers, wearing only loin cloths. Each man holds a tiny plastic cup, casually conversing by a water cooler… just another day at the office. Only they weren’t discussing paperwork or mortgages, but their own forced ‘transfer’ to America.
This will be no vacation.
With “The N— Lovers: A New Amerikkkan Musical,” playwright and composer Marc Anthony Thompson has created a modern minstrel show to challenge black and white people to think more deeply about slavery. And Thompson leaves us room to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
At the water cooler, Rotimi Agbabiaka and Aejay Marquis Mitchell sound so much like chatting modern office workers, they disorient the audience. As their conversation progresses, it becomes clear they are waiting for a slave ship coming for them. With no audience member safe from the racial implications, even the primarily white audience can find humor in the scene.
Thompson makes us ALL do the work necessary to acknowledge what America’s racial history means to each of us today.
In “The N— Lovers,” Thompson captures the true story of William and Ellie Craft (wonderful Agbabiaka and Aidaa Peerzada). Light-skinned Ellie takes on the role of his White Master, changing gender and color. And her husband William plays her slave, in an attempt to escape from Georgia to Boston. Does the disguise work? It did in real life pre-Civil War America!
The whole event takes place on a 19th-century designed minstrel stage with some Black actors wearing big signs that say “WHITE.” Tanika Baptiste steals the show with her performance as a ringmaster in tux and tails who announces each scene with a brilliant song and dance. She fearlessly and powerfully lays out the cold, hard facts for every one of us.
The music keeps us dancing, or frozen with our jaws dropped at the shocking lyrics.The costumes make it easy to know the where and who. The fast-moving scenes are tied together by the romance between a couple determined to escape the trap of Black skin in the South.
Thompson’s use of absurd humor to make us think more critically about race kept me on the edge of my seat! It’s exciting watching the audience confront white ignorance. As a Black woman in a sea of White faces, I could see some near-by folks editing their reactions–if we were sitting close to each other.
Catch this show ASAP, before it evolves. You can figure out for yourself what it brings up for you and how to confront these lessons and realizations.
“The N— Lovers: A New Amerikkkan Musical” by Marc Anthony Thompson, directed by Thompson with Sean San José, costumes designed by Corrida Carr, lighting design by Alejandro Acosta, at The Magic Theatre with Campo Santo, San Francisco. Info: MagicTheatre.org – to May 21, 2023.
Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Tanika Baptiste, Donald E. Lacy, Jr., Aejay Marquis Mitchell, and Aidaa Peerzada.
Banner photo: Aejay Marquis Mitchell & Rotimi Agbabiaka. Photos: Jay Yamada