Paint It White

As a white person living in Minnesota, it's easy to pay lip service to the indignities of racism while rarely appreciating the utter absurdity of judging people by the color of their skin. Sometimes, in moments of starry-eyed naïveté, one can wonder: What would happen to racism if there was a machine that could make everyone the same color?

Wonder no more. It turns out there is just such a machine in the Twin Cities. The device is currently housed in Minneapolis's warehouse district, inside the Guthrie Lab. It's called theater--satirical theater, to be precise--and its power source is Syl Jones's new play, Black No More. Loosely adapted from the 1931 novel by Harlem Renaissance writer George Schuyler, the story concerns a black scientist who invents a machine, the E-Race-O-Lator, that can make black people white. When you're sitting in the theater, though, it does just the opposite--if you happen to already be white, that is.

Of course, the E-Race-O-Lator is nothing more than a fictional device that turns the question of race inside-out. Once that alchemical feat has been performed, all hell breaks loose in America as skin color becomes an increasingly unreliable indicator of race and class. Black people by the thousands flock to Dr. Junius Crookman's laboratory to undergo "chromatic emancipation." All of a sudden, blacks everywhere start getting better jobs, leaving a vast worker shortage in the service sector. Black religious leaders cry foul as their congregations--and incomes--begin to dwindle. Meanwhile, the governor of Virginia, a bigot and the head of the Anglo-Saxon Society (ASS), plots ways to turn the race card into the presidency.

In the middle of it all is one Max Disher (played by Gregory Simmons), a black-man-turned-white who, in an attempt to cure America of racism once and for all, sets out for the South to infiltrate a motley white supremacist group, the Knights of Nordica. He ends up--well, we won't spoil it for you. Let's just say that his plan backfires, then it doesn't, then it does again--which is also a fairly accurate summation of the play as a whole.

Some of Black No More comes from the book, but not much. Jones's play is so freely adapted that the program calls it merely "inspired" by Schuyler's novel, a concession that Jones says was deemed necessary during the production process when he realized that the play wasn't going to have much in common with the book except for a basic premise. But if you've ever read Jones's column in the Star Tribune, especially those written by his alter ego, Dr. Shabazz, you know that he, like Schuyler, enjoys skewering the follies of white people like cubes of raw chicken (which, according to his play, is what white people smell like). This is but one of many jabs at the pretenses of white superiority. My favorite is the reaction of stunned disbelief black men have when they learn that after going through the E-Race-O-Lator, they will only be able to have sex 1.5 times a week--and only on Saturdays.

In academia, Black No More is regarded as the first novel-length satire ever written by an African American. First is far from best, though. Jones knew this more than five years ago when former Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright first invited him to adapt the book into a play.

"My sense was that the book wasn't very good," says Jones. "But it had a spine that was relevant. I told [Garland] that if I could take the spine and do what I wanted to with it, without having to be too reverential to the book, I'd be interested." Wright agreed, and the deal was done.

Five years later, Black No More is perhaps the most anticipated play ever commissioned by the Guthrie. So anticipated, in fact, that locally based Mixed Blood Theatre lobbied to co-produce it, along with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where it will go next month after ending its Minneapolis run. Though everyone wanted a piece of it in the planning stages, after seeing the results, they might be less enthusiastic.

That's because Syl Jones's adaptation has more in common with Schuyler's book than he probably intended--for this work, too, is deeply flawed. The play's saving grace is that it is flawed for fascinating and complex reasons, which ultimately makes the work a strange and not altogether unpleasurable theater experience. Polemically, Jones's play is like a postal worker run amok, shooting at everything in its path, sealing its own doom along the way. From sex to suffrage, Jones takes aim at virtually every aspect of racism in a mighty attempt to slay the demons of American bigotry. And though we root for him to hit his target--which he manages roughly half the time--we spend the rest of the evening in a wince.

The half that works, however, is a laugh riot indeed. When Gregory Simmons's Max Disher emerges from the E-Race-O-Lator with golden hair and a radio announcer's voice, his sudden preppiness--the stiff, butt-tucked walk, the learned elocution, the sudden urge to wear tartan vests and play golf--is absurdly funny. Isabell Monk is marvelously irreverent as the blacker-than-thou Sisseretta Blandish, who sees a business opportunity in training dispossessed white workers how to get and keep jobs at the lower end of the labor pool. And Stephen Yoakam plays the pathetically ineffectual head of the Knights of Nordica with all his Caucasian powers.

The play's over-the-top lunacy gets in the way of any real character development, though, and ultimately hinders its effectiveness as satire. The entire thing is played like a vaudeville sideshow, with actors gesticulating wildly and behaving like cartoon people trapped in Toonland. Furthermore, every scene change is punctuated by wacky circus music, and the action occasionally takes ridiculous leaps into full-blown burlesque musical numbers intended to evoke the overblown idiocy of 1940s Hollywood revues.

The catch to such criticism, though, is that this very tone of high-flying hyperbole is in keeping with the tone of Schuyler's original novel. In the program notes, Schuyler is quoted as saying, "I have tried to deal with [racism] as a civilized man; to portray the spectacle as a combination madhouse, burlesque show and Coney Island." As outlandish and ultimately annoying as this pervasive giddiness is, it is also the part of Jones's adaptation that is truest to the spirit of Schuyler's work.

Still, despite its shortcomings, Black No More is a smarter play than it lets on. Bogged down by a B-grade sci-fi plot and a hefty load of satirical overkill, it still manages to sneak in some insight and make it palatable for both races. From a black person's perspective, white society probably does look as ridiculous, stupid, and petty as it does in Black No More, and it is cathartic to see stupidity magnified to the point where it can no longer be denied. Besides, there is still something remarkable about a play that can make both black and white audiences laugh at the same time, at the same thing, for completely different reasons.

As Jones observes, "That line about white people smelling like wet chicken gets some nervous chuckles in Minneapolis, but in Washington, D.C. they're going to think that's hilarious." Somewhere in that laughter is a truth trying to escape. All it needs is a better chance to break free.

Black No More continues at the Guthrie Lab through April 19; call 377-2224.

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