Classical Theater of Harlem’s revival of Melvin Van Peebles’ rarely staged ghetto musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” is a mixed bag that often feels like a workshop production — refreshingly raw, yet messy and undisciplined as it struggles to find its form. But despite a wildly uneven first act of disconnected vignettes, this sprawling collage of black street life comes together to find both form and cohesiveness in an arresting second-act crescendo of urgent, angry set pieces that echo the civil unrest of the late 1960s.
First staged on Broadway in 1971, the critically lauded show ran for a year, landing seven Tony nominations including musical, book and score. Its modest commercial success and significance as a tradition-busting spoken-word musical were largely overshadowed, however, by Van Peebles’ achievement that same year with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
That landmark film earned Van Peebles enduring cultural icon status as a maverick of black artistic militancy, not to mention a groundbreaker in the indie film movement and godfather to the blaxploitation wave that followed.
Despite the ongoing relevancy of its themes, “Ain’t Supposed to Die” is perhaps of greater interest now as a cultural artifact than as entertainment. In an era in which depictions of urban life generally pulsate to hip-hop rhythms, Van Peebles’ jazz-, soul- and blues-derived mosaic is a curious anomaly. And while its importance has been eclipsed by the work of musicians like Gil Scott-Heron, tuner nonetheless stands as an innovative precursor to rap and slam poetry.
Following only two previews, opening night of the revival seemed under-rehearsed. It was plagued by a number of external factors that aggravated its first-act weaknesses: sound glitches that had some performers drastically overmiked and others drowned; the subtropical temperature of the Harlem School of the Arts Theater; butt-punishing metal seats. And the production does itself no favors by using Marvin Gaye’s golden “What’s Going On” pre-curtain, given the difficulty of discerning a melody in much of what follows.
But the hardworking cast eventually finds its groove and the play builds a cumulative impact as it progresses from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “Put a Curse on You,” a chilling, accusatory rant spat out by a bag lady (Lizan Mitchell).
Set on an inner-city block of an unnamed burg, the show assembles scenes from the lives of an ensemble of archetypal ghetto figures: quarreling lovers; weary, underpaid workers waiting for buses that never come; a pimp beating hell out of one of his girls for withholding her earnings; a blind panhandler; winos and junkies itching for a fix; a sassy transvestite boasting of her success with “those white Minnesota types.”
In vintage Van Peebles fashion, the action is overseen by “the Man.” A kind of urban junkyard equivalent of an African mask, the large white face with greenbacks for eyes and a grinning chain for a mouth has gesticulating arms (courtesy of puppeteer Kendra Ware) that wryly comment on the sad events unfolding on the stage below.
Despite some isolated highs — Neil Dawson’s cross-dressing hooker doing “Funky Girl on Motherless Broadway” among them — first act seems desultory, shapeless and even awkwardly amateurish at times. But intermission gives way to a series of potent vignettes that rarely miss their mark as they coalesce into a bitter depiction of the black experience.
The most dramatically effective of these, “Lily Done the Zampoughi Everytime I Pulled Her Coattails,” concerns a prisoner (J. Kyle Manzay) due to be fried in the electric chair who sings about the girl he killed (Carmen Barika) while she shimmies on a platform above.
Also bracing is Yusef Miller doing “Three Boxes of Longs, Please,” about money and warfare; “Salamaggi’s Birthday,” in which a black cop (Ty Jones) forces a newly recruited hooker (Simone Moore) to service him and his white partner; Tracey Jack as a lesbian urging the return of her lover; and “Come on Feet Do Your Thing,” in which Rashaad Ernesto Green is chased down and shot by cops.
Director (and CTH co-founder) Alfred Preisser makes resourceful use of the extended space offered by Troy Hourie’s busy set of wire cages, scaffolds, tenement rooms, storefronts, bars, street corners and an elevated overpass. The cast also detours frequently into the audience, with interaction from soliciting hookers and shady characters selling stolen goods.
Like Van Peebles’ loose, jazzy score — which works better in tightly focused numbers than in the cacophonous sonic carpeting laid under the dialogue throughout — the show is most successful when it hones defined narrative arcs rather than providing fragmented glimpses. During its monthlong Harlem run, the director, cast and even the six-piece orchestra may be able to soften some rough edges and make this ambitious production a smoother, more satisfying experience.