Daniel Beaty, poet, actor and playwright, has spent more than two years presenting his one-man/40-character treatise on slavery, cultural memory and its effect on modern African-American culture, its title now altered to the more direct “Emergency” from the overly cute “Emergen-SEE.” He has used several directors in those two years, and at the Geffen, Charles Randolph-Wright has highlighted Beaty’s poetry slam skills, both in the message and as the messenger. Beaty’s a skilled actor who bounces from one character to another in an absolute manner, and the strength of the performance overshadows cliches in the characters and their commentary but does not compensate for the lack of a eloquently delivered, grand closing statement.
Obie-winning “Emergency” is 80 minutes of frenetic energy. Beaty rarely gives himself a chance to catch his breath as he overlaps characters in lower Manhattan watching a slave ship rise up out of the Hudson and approach Liberty Island. A local newsman guides the action, and the locals watching include a “slave-ologist” from Ghana, a corporate executive, teens from the Bronx, grandparents and the homeless. Close to an hour in comes the only misstep, when Beaty eases up on the tension and creates a lulling effect that goes a bit too far toward sleepy.
Simultaneous with the ship’s appearance, the most autobiographical character in the piece, Rodney, is competing in the finals of “America’s Next Top Poet,” a TV show hosted by a sassy Oprah wannabe named Sharita Jenkins.
In a rare moment in which fiction and reality blur, Rodney delivers the evening’s most aggressive poem, a diatribe on survival and surveillance that is brash, thoughtful and concise. It hints at a direction the play may take — which fortunately it does not — and in the evening’s afterglow, the sting of the poem’s imagery lingers the longest.
Rodney’s brother is Freddy, a self-involved yet directionless gay man who overindulges fantasy crushes and ends up as one of the play’s least-satisfying characters. Their father, however, becomes the fulcrum for the play after the slave ship emerges; he heads downtown to observe and then jumps in the Hudson, swims to the ship and winds up conversing with an African tribal chief.
The father is a broken man, a former English professor who started answering the voices in his head after his wife was murdered when the boys were elementary-school age. His goal was to teach the boys literature and diction, seeing that particular education as a way out of the ghetto. His mental illness apparently did not kill his curiosity, though, and his dialogue with the African chief — and what he sees on the ship — provide “Emergency’s” most distinguished moments.
Beaty beautifully chronicles his father’s condition with the line “His mind took him to a place his heart could handle.”
Observations and characterizations in the early going are pinpoint, and, as the play progresses, Beaty moves to larger brushes as he starts to paint a billboard that applies to immigrant societies rather than a miniature about black culture. He tosses off the crucial point that Africans were the only Americans who arrived here not by choice, but does not expand on that theme.
His ultimate points — all of them noble — are more universal than they are specifically black: We are all connected; we live with pain; parents generally aim to shield their children from the bad and push them toward the good; we need to honor those who suffered and died to bring about change for the better.
What distinguishes Beaty’s work is that not of those points are presented in heavy-handed fashion, but, even in his final entry in the televised poetry slam, he comes up shy in delivering that ultimate statement in language on par with his earlier slams.
Simple yet effective sets and lights perfectly limn Beaty’s performance and Randolph-Wright’s direction.
Within the context of Geffen presentations, “Emergency” is the first recent one-person show at the Playhouse that has not connected the performer with biography or tragedy. It is a fantasy that distinguishes itself by assisting in understanding an American, rather than personal, experience.
Assessing the Geffen season as a distinctly American whole, this production stands out as one of its gems.