A funny, passionate show, perfect for Black History Month, “Emergence-See!” also celebrates Freedom Rep’s return after a long hiatus. The splendid Philly theater combines the elegance of the restored 19th century Edwin Forrest mansion with the festive African motifs of the contemporary performance space. That very combination — old and new, American and African — is the idea embedded in this one-actor, multicharacter show about the schizophrenia at the center of the current African-American experience. Since he plays all the characters, the talented Daniel Beaty literally embodies the theme he dramatizes.
The show begins with the appearance of a ghost slave ship in the Hudson River near the Statue of Liberty. Four hundred years ago, an African chieftain threw himself overboard rather than become enslaved, and his spirit possesses a deranged Shakespeare scholar who climbs aboard the bone-filled vessel. The question “To be or not to be?” morphs into a political, sociological and philosophical inquiry about the future of black people in America.
The ship’s appearance is both media event and social catalyst as the reporters and crowds gather. Beaty shifts from interviewer to interviewee, from “slavologist” to slave, from Yalie to derelict, from little girl to her grandmother. He can sing soprano and baritone, he can do gay and straight, thuggish and chic. He can illustrate the internal conflict between “the Nerd and the Nigger,” illustrate the violent fantasies of a polite BMW driver stopped by a cop, and portray the little boy within the grown man still waiting for his father who never came home from prison.
Among the show’s diverse strengths is its sophistication, rejecting the predictable polemics without losing the passion. Just as each of the many pieces looks as though it might turn into harangue or kitsch or slush, it veers off into self-ironizing humor or fiercely sane cultural analysis.
Beaty is the 2004 Grand Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and he uses a poetry slam as part of the architecture of the show: Four characters are performing poets at the Cafe, all wildly different, each presenting knockout poems that actually further the plot. Narrative links among the characters emerge as they develop and reappear, and Beaty shapeshifts with astonishing ease.
Beaty urges his audience to “reconnect” with the past and to “choose to see” as the ghost ship disappears from sight. Without ever becoming ponderous, he suggests the Jungian ideas of racial memory and the collective unconscious to link the African past with the American present. The triumph is that even with its seriousness of purpose, “Emergence-See!” is remarkably entertaining.
At a time when everyone and his uncle seem to be performing multiple-character solo shows, this one’s a standout.