The screenplay for Mansa Ra’s battered new play, “In the southern breeze, “at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, has two epigraphs – one from Amiri Baraka’s poem”Preface to a suicide note in twenty volumes“, The other from Martin Luther King Jr.:” The arc of the moral universe is long, but it leans towards justice.
These opposing impulses – desperation and perseverance – fight during this dramatic dark night of the soul, which opens with an unnamed Contemporary American (Allan K. Washington), simply named Man, arriving home and removing the smile he wears, of necessity, in the hostile world outside.
This is the expression he calculates, as a black man, to signal that he is both non-threatening and sufficiently educated not to be disturbed. “The Obama Deluxe,” he calls it.
This little slam makes a lot of laughs. Just minutes later, the humor is already a release of tension in a show that will discuss suicide, slavery and the deadly force of racism in the lives of black men throughout American history. And Ra, like this show’s excellent cast of five, is shown to be adept at switching lightning-fast between crushing and comedic.
Tormented by anxiety, depression and panic attacks, the isolated man finds it difficult to continue. Submission to the invisible and ubiquitous noose that hangs over him – “every black man’s bogeyman,” he calls him – has started to seem like a comfort.
“Sometimes that beckons me,” he says towards the end of that first scene, which, returning to Baraka’s poem, Ra titles volume 19. Volume 20 is the other bookend in this piece. The longest of the three scenes – the surreal and moving center, in which the Man does not appear – is Volume 1.
In a beautiful production by Christopher D. Betts, everything takes place on a grassy expanse that stretches out into the distance, with a witty “Fare Ye Well” as a calming sound motif. (The set is by Emmie Finckel, the lights by Emma Deane, the costumes by Jahise LeBouef and the sound by Kathy Ruvuna.)
As the play turns to volume 1, the wary and impatient Madison (Charles Browning) enters, looking for the trailer that will take him north to meet his wife. It is 1780, to his knowledge, and he is fleeing slavery, barefoot.
But the first person he meets is Lazarus (Victor Williams), a tenant farmer from Tennessee from 1892. Then a 1970s Black Panther named Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin) arrives, followed shortly after by Tony (Travis Raeburn). , a young AIDS activist from the early 1990s. It takes a while for most of them to understand why they are all gathered there, under this invisible noose, and how many eras have collided.
“Hold the phone,” Hue said incredulously to Madison. “Are you really a slave?” “
“Hold what? »Answers a bewildered Madison.
“In the Southern Breeze” pays tender tribute to previous generations of black Americans and is a shameless testament to the white violence that has tainted and threatened them. Coming back to this quote from Dr King, she also acknowledges the progress towards justice through the ages.
This piece is a formally more ambitious and far-reaching work than “Too Heavy for Your Pocket”, with which Ra made his New York debut in 2017, when he was known as Jiréh Breon Holder.
What baffles him here in volume 20 is how to let his nameless 21st century man shed existential exhaustion in a way that doesn’t seem obvious. Like Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over”, rewritten for its recent Broadway broadcast to leave more room for joy, this play aims to illuminate an uplifting path out of pain. But its last section becomes confused and didactic, its poetism forced.
Finding hope, it turns out, is the tricky part.
In the southern breeze
Through December 12, in person and streaming, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; rattlestick.org. Duration: 1h15.