While the Twin Cities' stages still tend to be lily-white, more creators of color are finding spaces for their work. After facing well-deserved criticism for the monochromatic makeup of recent seasons, the Guthrie Theater is featuring three works directed by African-American artists, featuring African-American leads.
Still, finding places for diverse voices to be heard can be difficult, which is why work like Nacirema: Stories of Color is such a vital part of the local arts ecology. The new Nimbus Theater production offers seven performers a chance to explore their own intersections with American life and culture.
Like most sketch-based productions, Nacirema ("American" spelled backward) is a mixed bag. It gathers steam as it goes along, providing some depth and insight along the way, and hits its stride when it homes in on the personal. The broader political statements, however, often land with a thud. When diverse perspectives on complex issues get reduced to statements and slogans, they lose all of their personal power and become about as interesting as a bumper sticker.
Unfortunately, this happens quite a bit early on, as the production tries to find its balance. That leads to some painfully earnest sequences that weigh down the first part of the show. Segments like a video detailing the immigration experiences of people of color in a largely white world don't probe deeply enough, and elsewhere, a promising bit about ordering a token "friend of color" via an infomercial just never gets going, triple underscoring its main point (we treat individuals as clichés of the groups they belong to) in the first few moments and then never moving far beyond that.
Thankfully, that isn't how Nacirema ends. The seven performers pick up energy along the way, and as the material gets more personal it begins to draw the audience into the worlds of its characters — it allows the people to get personal. Jesse Villarreal recounts the casual racism he faced, and somewhat encouraged, with his World of Warcraft guild. Ernest Briggs retells a Disney movie as a Native American legend. In fact, the play's intersections with pop culture are some of the most intriguing points here, as the characters try to find the balance between their own heritage and the pressure to conform that seems to be an essential piece of the culture at large.
In these moments, we find a pair of African-American women talking about the desire to have hair like their white classmates — to the point where they torture it with hot combs and treat it with chemical cocktails that sound like biological weapons. We also find Alsa Bruno as Busta Ross, the host of a painting class that, at first, feels like an outtake from an Eddie Murphy routine on Saturday Night Live. But in the end it becomes a testament to the sanity that comes with the creation of art.
And in a reflection of the first-act infomercial that went nowhere, the cast gathers on an MTC bus for a cross-cultural morning commute. Their various thoughts are held up on signs, and continue to explore the core themes of the work. They expand the conversation to take on issues of class, gender, and age, while being quite entertaining at the same time.