Adam Mansbach’s cultishly popular novel about an “Angry Black White Boy” who ignites a nationwide race furor seemed an unlikely property for stage translation. But adaptor (as well as title-role player) Dan Wolf and collaborators have pulled it off. This very funny, frequently electric take on an outrageous story is billed as a “new play with live music” — though it’s no musical. Rather, it’s hip-hop theater that seems destined for extended life, even if it’s hard to imagine a different production working quite so well.
The book’s careening parable feels like a more multiculturally aware equivalent to the literary provocations of older cult author Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”), with its wild plot hooks, credibly eccentric characters and trenchant apocalyptic comedy.
Macon DeTornay (Wolf) is a self-described “white Jewish suburban kid” with a difference: His passions for rap music and an ugly chapter in the family tree have so attuned him to racial injustice he hates “whiteness” itself. Entering Columbia U. as a frosh, he finagles being a roommate to Andre (Myers Clark), grandson of pioneering 1880s black Major League catcher Fleet Walker. Macon is the great-grandson of Cap Anson, another real-life figure and star player whose virulent racism helped keep baseball re-segregated until the 1940s.
Easygoing Andre is at first nonplussed by this forced “connection” but accepts Macon as a new pal. He introduces him to his even more put-off cousin Nique (Tommy Shepherd), who finds it ludicrous to have a white boy quoting Malcolm X, let alone one with a prison-style tattoo commemorating the Rodney King-inspired Los Angeles riots on his arm. Nonetheless, Macon’s pro-black, anti-white rhetoric ingratiates … sorta.
Meanwhile, he’s driving a cab around Manhattan to pay for school (rejecting his liberal parents’ money as more “white privilege”).
One noxious yuppie passenger’s racist rant drives Macon over the edge — he robs the guy at gunpoint and is exhilarated. Yet after repeat crimes, the victims, police and news outlets still describe the white-targeting mugger cabbie as African-American — because, all visual evidence to the contrary, they simply can’t imagine otherwise.
Macon outs himself as the perp, becoming the “New Face of Hate” to some and race-revolutionist Robin Hood to others. Andre and Nique become campaign managers of a sort for their somewhat unmanageable, bail-sprung friend’s exploding fame. This culminates in a “National Day of Apology” on which Macon calls for white citizens to apologize to African-Americans for past/present inequities. Far from healing wounds, however, this proposal only reveals the depth of racial anger, denial and ignorance.
Wolf, Shepherd and Keith Pinto — who plays various white males in addition to choreographing the show’s ingenious street-dance-slash-mime stylized movement — are all founding members of San Francisco hip-hop ensemble Felonious, which emphasizes live instrumentation.
Here, occasional recorded snippets mesh with the cast’s rapping, human beatboxing, singing and keyboarding — all cleverly driving the narrative forward rather than overpowering it. Visual design contributions are sharp but minimal, as the dynamic four performers’ multiple-role-playing, multidisciplinary talents supply all spectacle needed.
Wolf’s text and Sean San Jose’s fine-tuned direction vary pace and energy such that the play doesn’t overstay its welcome. Still, for maximum momentum, “ABWB” might ideally be tightened from two acts into an intermissionless 90-plus minutes.