Speaking of black America today

Mixed Blood’s 15-piece puzzle of a production sings, dances and raps instead of preaches

Tatum Fjerstad

Warren C. Bowles has been a part of the Mixed Blood Theatre for all of its 30 years. Most recently, he was invited to be a part of a production about current black culture.

A self-described “old fart,” he is only one of the production’s many voices that speaks about today’s people and today’s issues.

“The voices you hear often are very young people; their view on the world,” said Bowles, an actor and playwright in “Point of Review.”

The production combines 15 plays – and more individuals. It mixes hip-hop, politics, race and a famous actor or two into a “puzzle” of a play that feels rather than teaches.

“We’re speaking of what’s going on in black culture right now,” Bowles said.

“Point of Revue” is modeled after the 2004 production “Bill of (W)Rights,” in which plays about the first 10 amendments were performed all over the West Bank theater’s space.

Artistic Director Jack Reuler evaluated what worked and what didn’t and generated the ideas for “Point of Revue,” a play that hits on topics that black America deals with in 2006.

With “Bill of (W)Rights,” each play asked questions and makes audiences ponder the answers. But in “Point of Revue,” the playwrights were encouraged to be opinionated on topics like sexuality, war, religion and power. To create the title for the production, Reuler used word play to combine the entertainment of a revue and the playwrights’ points of view to create “Point of Revue.”

“This is about what’s happening right now in the minds, eyes, ears, lungs, of not only new and emerging writers, but established writers,” said director Thomas W. Jones II. “And where is black thinking in terms of those issues (in modern times).”

Instead of many different improvisational stages, “Point of Revue” features 15 plays performed on Mixed Blood stage of the Alan Page Auditorium.

Each 10-minute play is woven seamlessly into the next by the nine-person vaudevillian cast (some of whom are also playwrights) with song, dance and performance. The fourth wall is broken down, so the audience knows they are actors, not characters, and the lights hardly go down throughout the entire 90-minute performance.

“This is the most challenging piece we’re doing this year,” Reuler said. “And the process has been fascinating.”

Jones’ stage direction and lyrics and Sanford Moore’s musical direction put to J.D. Steele’s “potpourri of contemporary music” features the work of people like Hollywood actor Don Cheadle, political playwright Kia Corthron and local playwright and critic Dwight Hobbes.

“It’s Cirque du Soliel meets Parliament Funkadelics,” Jones said.

Bowles paralleled the process of creating the production to building a puzzle.

“It’s taking 15 people who go off and create one piece of this jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “And no one is going to tell you what any of the other pieces look like or what the picture on the puzzle is.

“The linkage of all these disparate plays truly becomes a conversation,” he said.

While the music is important, it’s not the focal point of the play, Steele said, who started writing the score in late December and finished in February. The music is wide-ranging and the voices singing it induce chills and raise hairs. It’s impossible not to move in your seat and clap your hands.

“I tried to write something that enhances something that is already there,” Steele said. “My hope is that is compelling enough to enhance what the writers have written.”

The similarly simple, versatile set features two pairs of double doors that are separated and spun to create a different abstract setting for each play.

“Point of Revue” hits every emotion as each actor sings, dances, spits spoken word, acts, tells stories and moves set pieces to create a different feel for each play.

“We don’t really get a chance to breathe,” Steele said.

The plays

> Wooden You (Syl Jones): A slapstick comedy in which a black ventriloquist with a white dummy ask the questions: Who controls whom? And who’s got the power?

> Public Transportation (Warren C. Bowles): A paradoxical examination of black Americans’ appreciation, or lack thereof, of theater performed or written by black Americans.

> The interpretation of being (Kirsten Greenidge): A look at class within black communities and at who is the arbiter of taste and culture in black art.

> After Party (Lynn Nottage): The privileged wife of a black media magnate struggles with her role as mother of a child with Down Syndrome.

> Down Low (Robert O’Hara): This rewritten musical version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” looks at the life of gay black men who are not able to be completely honest about who they are.

> Dues (Dwight Hobbes): When a black journalist working at a daily newspaper is fired for cause, he realizes the principle of covering your ass before you stick out your neck.

> A Quiet Emergency (Don Cheadle): Based on Cheadle’s travels to Africa, “A Quiet Emergency” is the story of what children in Uganda have to do to survive compared to the playwright’s own privileged children.

> The world is a ghetto (Yonas Assefa): An African immigrant working in corporate America finds that he is “too black” for whites and “not black enough” for black Americans.

> Blown Away (Gavin Lawrence): A musical look at the cycle of violence with young black males.

> The Mother’s Board (Jevetta Steele): In a rite of passage, an elderly woman who has been anchored by the church shares her Christian wisdom with an adolescent teenager.

> Keepin’ It “Real” (David Barr III): Two sports anchors, one black, one not, both with predictable points of view in front of the camera, show their true colors off the air.

> Secretary of Shake (Eisa Davis): Lampooning the showbiz of politics, two dancers audition to be background entertainment for Condoleezza Rice’s stump speeches.

> Come so Far (Kia Corthron): Condoleezza Rice defends her role as a representative of the right.

> Gods of war(Carlyle Brown): Black soldiers in Iraq are forced to compare their treatment at home with what they are being asked to do to Iraqis.