“Black No More,” a new Off Broadway musical created by some showbiz heavyweights, uses the title of its source material, the classic 1931 novel by George S. Schuyler about Black people passing as white. But it might be more aptly titled “White Like Me” since it seems to borrow more heavily from John Howard Griffin’s now-forgotten 1961 bestseller, “Black Like Me,” which detailed the white journalist’s account of traveling through the South for six weeks in blackface. The extremely popular book was made into an even more terrible movie in 1964, starring James Whitmore in blackface.
The New Group’s production of “Black No More,” which opened Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, repeats a lot of the racial platitudes and bromides in “Black Like Me.” What does not get repeated is much of anything from Schuyler’s viciously satirical “Black No More.” The little bit that’s left involves an enterprise known as Black No More, a breakthrough scientific procedure that lightens the skin, rendering people of African descent identical to Caucasians. The first man to undergo the process is Max (Brandon Victor Dixon, loaded with relaxed charm), who has just been rebuffed by a white woman, Helen (Jennifer Damiano), after she has flirted with him in a Harlem nightclub.
In its opening moments, “Black No More” recalls the 1999-2000 theater season in New York City when there were dueling musicals named “The Wild Party,” both shows based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem. Those Harlem speakeasies were a mixing ground for all races and all sexual orientations. In “Black No More,” Bill T. Jones’ strenuous choreography emphasizes this diversity and adds another: He partners professional dancers with some who are not so professional (to be kind). They dance to the boisterous showstopper “This Is Harlem,” and we’re back in 1929. Or is it 1999?
It’s hard to say where director Scott Elliott’s work ends and Jones’ choreography begins. There’s an easy fluidity on display here, except when the dancers appear to be in pain doing some of the more awkward contortions required of them.
The “Black No More” score runs the gamut from blues to hip-hop to torch songs to bad parodies of Rodgers & Hammerstein for the white characters to sing. No fewer than four composers are credited – Tariq Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters – with Trotter (aka Black Thought) providing the lyrics, which are clever until they veer into “Climb Every Mountain” bombast.
Before the whole cast goes completely over the R&H cliff singing “Victory for Love” at the final curtain, Trotter makes only one slip when Helen demands “transparency” from Max, whom she has now married while believing he is a white man. Before you can say “Mandingo,” she’s going to have a baby. The musical’s book, by John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), abandons Schuyler’s novel sometime before the kid arrives, and it completely mangles Helen, who should be renamed Sybil. The whiplash from racist to belle to feminist to victim to the inevitable “Karen” is so extreme that the role should come with a chiropractor for poor Damiano.
There is a scene set in a Harlem beauty salon, taken from the novel, where women go to get their hair straightened. In the novel, Schuyler makes it clear he doesn’t care what these characters are thinking. He just ridicules them for trying to look a little bit white. In Ridley’s book, the women are guilt-ridden to the point of shaving their heads. As the owner of the salon, Lillias White does an amazing job of singing from both sides of Madame Sisseretta’s mouth.
And that’s the big difference between the novel and the musical “Black No More.” The latter wants us to sympathize. Schyuler’s book, on the other hand, takes no prisoners. He describes characters of all races in terms of reptiles, rodents and swine. To quote Sondheim, “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and it’s filled with people who are filled with…..”
The novel “Black No More” doesn’t want us to like or admire anybody. Rather, Schuyler’s clear contempt for humanity makes it unlikely source material for a musical. In the right hands, the story could be another “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera and Schuyler’s novel are devastating indictments of capitalism. In the new musical, though, Ridley’s book delivers a really nice, good and conscientious character named Buni (Tamika Lawrence, in strong voice). She is also a predictable moral compass, and replaces a far more intriguing character from the novel, Bunny, who is every bit as mercenary as his pal Max.
What Ridley and Buni don’t tell us, but Schuyler and Bunny do, is that after the popularity of the Black No More treatment, Harlem has emptied out because its citizens can now live anywhere and not be jammed into a ghetto where they pay exorbitant rents for small substandard apartments. In Schuyler’s novel, the United States of America almost grinds to a halt because there is no underclass of people left to work as porters, maids, laborers and caregivers. In Schuyler’s novel, churches and civil rights organizations turn race into a commodity for their own profit. And in Schuyler’s novel, with almost everybody now passing as Caucasian, the Democrats and Republicans go to extremes to come up with absurd genealogy tests to re-establish a ruling class.
“Black No More” the musical does keep Schuyler’s parody of the Ku Klux Klan. Do writers for the theater really think they’re being courageous or adventurous by lampooning the KKK? Even retrograde Republicans could applaud. What gets left out of this musical is Schuyler’s parody of the NAACP and his caricatures of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, among others. As the entrepreneur behind Black No More, Dr. Junius Crookman (Tariq Trotter, being a wizard of dross) emerges as little more than a stock musical-comedy villain.
Schuyler was a prickly one for any group to embrace. He wrote “Black No More” during his socialist period, but later in life, he pulled a real Clarence Thomas. The writer lobbied against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, voted for Barry Goldwater for president and he firmly believed that apartheid was best left up to the South African government to sort out.
That history aside, Schuyler’s novel remains savagely funny.