Kirsten Greenidge’s “Rust” is an intriguing, multileveled meditation on African-American success, identity and history. Its protagonist is a modern-day NFL star haunted by Aunt Jemima and other racist stereotypes packaged for white consumption — not to mention his fear that despite all his millions, he may simply be a 21st-century minstrel. Fluidly shifting between reality and fantasy, the play cries out for a more expansive staging canvas than director Raelle Myrick-Hodges can provide in the cramped Magic space. Nonetheless, this premiere production solidly mines the potential in a cluttered but bracingly ambitious text.
Randall “the Mighty Miff” Mifflin (Mikaal Sulaiman) lives the African-American Dream as a hugely paid pro footballer with a gorgeous wife (not his first), a $5.3 million house and every expensive toy he wants. So why has he secluded himself in his manse, missing practices and games, and prompting rumors he’s “really buggin’ out”?
Because, actually, he is: Following increasingly erratic public behavior, he’s holed himself up to play videogames and buy online antique “coon stuff” — racist but collectible advertising and novelty products like Darkie Toothpaste, “Negro” lawn-jockey statues, “all those pickaninny, watermelon-eating faces.”
This behavior disturbs glam spouse Jeannie (April Matthis) almost as much as the potential economic consequences of Randall’s meltdown. Having pulled herself up from the ghetto by the bootstraps, she doesn’t fancy seeing their plush lifestyle torpedoed by his instability.
At the play’s start, longtime friend-cum-teammate Chunk-Chunk (Donald Lett) and his wife (Nicole C. Julien) try to coax Randall out of his funk. They soon discover he has been getting constant phone calls from a strange “Old South lady” asking for her “honey-lamb” (meaning Randall), snapping at Jeannie and anyone else who answers. Visible on a platform stage rear is the caller, Ella Mae Walker (Cathleen Riddley), a masked “mammy” who incarnates an image on a vintage cookie jar with which Randall is strangely obsessed.
Meanwhile, uptight buppie sibs Andrew (Lance Gardner) and Olivia (Matthis again) look over their late mother’s house. Olivia wants to reconnect with past memories, while Andrew wants to sell the house ASAP. Their attention is diverted when out from the wall pops Mary-Mary-Anne (Julien), another masked entity — this one a pigtailed girl in the mode of the one on Farina Cereal boxes and of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s” Topsy. She insists the duo help find her “family,” leading them to the shop where a cranky gent (L. Peter Callender) trades in retro “colored” tchotchkes and advertising images.
Real-world and quasi-mythological figures continue to intermingle, eventually encompassing two lawn jockeys who come to life (Gardner, Eric Fraisher Hayes); an Uncle Tom-like old man (Callender) crying “Save me, Joe Louis!”; and two amusingly quarrelsome TV sports commentators (Gardner, Hayes).
Then there are flashbacks to Randall’s abusive, now-deceased mother (Riddley), whose expectations he could never meet. “Rust” has a complex agenda and structure that Greenidge largely pulls off, though it takes a while for viewers to get their bearings. Myrick-Hodges and her strong cast make use of the theater’s side exits, the stagefront aisle, quick-change set pieces and myriad music/sound cues. Still, this work ideally needs a larger playing field.
Design elements were inspired by Kara Walker, whose art deploys racist black imagery of yore to provocative, disturbingly beautiful effect. A staging expansive enough to incorporate shadow-play (Walker is heavy on silhouetting), multimedia and a more powerfully abstract overall design scheme (Robert Wilson comes to mind as an apt influence) would help “Rust” realize its full potential.