Daniel Beaty has created a solo show that both proves his talent as a performer and exposes his weakness as a writer. “Emergence-See!” — his riff on the legacy of slavery in America — proffers a voice that sounds beautiful, even as it mouths the broadest cliches.
As a speaker and singer, Beaty has control of an exquisite instrument, and simply listening to him is always a pleasure. Playing a host of characters who react to a slave ship that rises from Hudson Bay and settles in front of the Statue of Liberty, he remains as pure and powerful at the top of his impressive range as he does at the bottom.
Many of his creations are slam poets, and Beaty uses the form to build symphonies out of the rhythm of his words. The show is most exciting when he suddenly alters a poem’s meter, volume or speed so it can suggest some new emotion.
But visceral thrills can’t hide shallow thinking. Unlike those in Sarah Jones’ “Bridge and Tunnel,” another solo show that uses slam poetry to confront American ethnicity, the characters in “Emergence-See!” lack the detail to make them more than concepts. There’s a woman who wants to pray before the slave ship, so she’s the nod to religion. There’s a Jamaican man who mentions we’re all the same color inside, so he covers tolerance. Some of these segments are funny, but they always confuse naming a subject with actually exploring it.
For clarity’s sake, Beaty at least gives his archetypes distinct gestures and vocal tics, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting signals a new speaker by changing color or spotlighting a different part of the stage.
Ironically, the most indistinguishable characters are the leads, two brothers whose father has climbed on top of the slave ship and won’t come down. One man is a competitive poet, the other is gay. Otherwise, they’re interchangeable mouthpieces for the playwright’s conclusions.
And it’s Beaty’s insistence on moral summation that makes his writing so troubling. After sketching broad portraits of African-Americans — in addition to those mentioned above, there’s a homeless man, a young girl with AIDS and a conservative businessman — he concludes by suggesting all their problems can be solved if they honor their ancestral past. It’s no accident the slave ship is called Remembrance.
But it takes more than remembrance to navigate this country’s complex relationship to race. By reductively suggesting otherwise, “Emergence-See!” does a disservice to its subject.