Usually, calling a new work a mess would be a put-down, but the unadulterated messiness of “Black Diamond” might well be its greatest asset. That’s because it depicts one gigantic mess, the civil war that wracked Liberia for the first part of this decade. Enhanced by the raw physicality that’s the trademark of Chicago’s Lookingglass, this vibrant first play from J. Nicole Brooks employs a mishmash of styles to express political and psychological chaos.
The title and African setting will of course bring to mind the recent film “Blood Diamond,” set in neighboring Sierra Leone. But the diamond trade itself exists merely as deep background to this story; the Black Diamond of the title refers not to a stone but to the lead character, a Liberian woman who was raped as a child and has become a fierce fighting machine, the leader of a group of female guerilla warriors.
She’s portrayed by the phenomenally talented Alana Arenas (most recently the lead in Steppenwolf’s “Bluest Eye”), who invests Black Diamond not just with convincing ferocity and the right hints of both mystery and vulnerability but also with sheer flashiness, the injection of which gives this show constant entertainment value.
Story is based on a magazine article about a guerrilla group and its leader. To provide a semblance of structure and a point of entry, Brooks introduces an African-American journalist, Jim Fox (Jason Delane), attempting to write a story on Black Diamond. Fox’s growing identity crisis — how is he connected to Liberia, which was formed by freed American slaves? — provides the opportunity for a series of hallucinatory, satirical sequences, emceed by a puppet called the American Dummy (an outstanding comic turn from Kevin Douglas) and punctuated by lots of frenetic movement and African drumming.
Perhaps Brooks’ most impressive accomplishment is her ability to make the realistic sequences as bizarre as the surrealistic ones. All the Liberians spout a stream of unending American pop-culture references in an effort to impress. And General Dragon Master (Freeman Coffey) even tries to entertain Fox with a buxom female friend in a flag-design bra, whom he calls Betsy Ross.
The show is far more successful at expressing this bizarreness than it is at elucidating the competing political forces at work in Liberia or at providing Fox with a decipherable character arc. But there’s the ring of something deeply true here, and with Arenas, Douglas and the rest of this 11-person cast, the whole show, co-directed by Brooks and Lookingglass a.d. David Catlin, possesses unstoppable vitality.