Michael Washington Brown contains multitudes. Fresh from the fringe circuit, the British actor is briefly in Chicago with his one-man show, “Black!,” which is a meditation compiled from interviews with his friends about what common experiences and attitudes exist throughout the African diaspora, and how they take on different forms. Over the course of one hundred minutes, Brown transforms not only into three other speakers: a black American, a Jamaican-Briton, and an African, but also into several of their conversational partners. An empty stage becomes a house of mirrors for reflection on black identity.
As Brown describes it, the show’s genesis occurred when an irate elderly relative shared with him a hoax document circulating the Internet purportedly describing means colonial slaveowners used to psychologically dominate slaves. As a first-generation Londoner of Barbadian descent, it got him thinking: if the black experience is synonymous with struggle, and he has struggled far less than most black people, does that make him less black? Did the experiences of colonialism and slavery leave similar marks on people from throughout the globe? The show presents his findings: contradictory, shaded, and fragmented, but with the different narratives containing parallel themes. For example, movement to music is or used to be a major part of the life of everyone he talked to, but it meant very different things. For some, it reinforces the community in the sense of people helping and valuing each other, but for others, certain genres of music have developed a sub-culture that thrives on negativity.
Athenaeum Theatre Productions Provides an Ideal Aesthetic
Brown is also interested in the connotations of the word “black,” beyond a description of African (and in the British usage, indigenous Australian) people. The show is in a black box, with him in all black clothes, and only the changes of the light as his characters switch between tenses break up the show’s visuals. Left alone onstage, Brown commands the audience’s attention with his conversational tone as he muses on his discoveries and quandaries. You may disagree with everything you hear, Brown says, but reason and empathy oblige us to listen. Indeed, this reviewer learned a lot about black Britons’ relationships with each other, and the divisions that exist between different immigrant groups. Even if a lot of what gets expressed in the show is disagreeable to some in the audience and to the other characters Brown embodies, it is valuable to understand the perspective of the people who hold those beliefs. Brown makes the characters so real it is easy to imagine the conversations with each of them continuing for a long while.
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago
Thru July 30
Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm
Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30 pm
Sunday at 2:00 pm
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.