at the New Regal Theater



Griffin Theater

Let’s see, I learned that Hannibal, who crossed the Alps in 218 BC, was black–and so was Aleksandr Pushkin, the 19th-century Russian poet, and even Queen Charlotte Sophia, grandmother to Queen Victoria. I met some familiar black faces–Lorraine Hansberry, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington–and some I’d never heard of before, notably Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneering scientist in the development of plasma storage. Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame includes figures who are political (Haile Selassie, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Steven Biko–the mere mention of whose name drew a round of applause from the audience–and of course Dr. Martin Luther King), humanitarian (Harriet Tubman, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask), athletic (including, in addition to those you’d expect, cricket master Sir Garfield Sobers and tennis champion Althea Gibson), and artistic (Louis Armstrong, Nate “King” Cole).

But Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame is more than just a blitz course in black history. It is a pageant, its material interpreted lavishly through music, dance, and drama. An onstage chorus bridges the diverse segments, creating a parade through time and space. For example, after the eight kings of Africa have been introduced, they dance together to the reggae song “War” (sung by Errol Hines, who plays Haile Selassie). Later, while a voice-over lists their significant accomplishments, Nelson and Winnie Mandela each perform a solo dance that segues into a full-cast production number featuring–what else?–the African National Congress anthem.

Most surprising is that at no time does the potentially ludicrous sight of these historic figures singing and dancing become silly or blasphemous. In the song that opens the show–“Let’s not forget our heroes. . . . And what about our heroines?”–the metaphor through which the information is conveyed is so firmly established that it seems perfectly natural to have Toussaint-Louverture and Sojourner Truth pirouetting with African warriors in paint and feathers and guerrilla soldiers in camouflage fatigues. Any doubts we might still have about the suitability of the medium to the message are erased by the sheer magnitude of the spectacle. The New Regal Theater seats some 2,300 people, and its stage is big enough to serve as a track for bicycle races–Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame is proportioned accordingly, with slide projections, strobes, smoke effects, searchlight-spots by the score, and sound amplification powerful enough to guide ships into harbor. The individual performances are so uniformly well crafted that one could even ignore the entire premise of the show and still enjoy it simply as entertainment.

Not bad for a show that began as a 1987 community-theater tribute to reggae artist Bob Marley. Created by Flip Fraser, in conjunction with composer Ken Kendricks and lyricist J.D. Douglas, Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame played its native England for three years before starting its first American tour last month. (All but three members of the current company are British, products of London’s burgeoning West Indian community; listen to the accents and try to guess which three.) Some of the dances have been rechoreographed for this tour by Amaniyea Payne (artistic director for Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre) for the show is constantly evolving, with new characters being added as the roll of candidates for the hall of fame grows longer. It is difficult to single out any one performer in the 45-member ensemble, so highly skilled and tirelessly enthusiastic are they all. The last half hour of the show is a tribute to great black entertainers, with performers impersonating such modern talents as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. Anthony Wilson, who plays Brown, has all the Godfather’s moves down–back handsprings, walking headstands, flying splits, and one spectacular face-forward slide over the edge of the stage apron that would have landed him in a spectator’s lap had the actor not braked himself with one hand on the back of the startled audience member’s seat (I’m told Wilson does this trick every night).

In the sequence entitled “The Great Debate,” Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey (played in a booming Screamin’ Jay Hawkins voice by Count Prince Miller) debate their positions on the direction to be taken by their people. (Malcom X got the most support from the audience, but King got the last word in.) Though the dialogue is credited to J.D. Douglas, a certain amount of improvisational leeway is clearly permitted–references to K-Town, Spike Lee, and the recent LA police beating all turned up. At the end of the debate the three men embrace in sportsmanly brotherhood, while the chorus sings a commentary on what we have just heard. Just to make sure we get the message, a rapper named Seannie-T hits the stage with a song summarizing the main points. I left the theater understanding for the first time in my life the precise distinctions between the idealogies of three of the most influential black American leaders of the 20th century, and I got to clap my hands on the downbeat to a modern rock-rap. What more could you ask from one evening at the theater?

By contrast, Griffin Theatre’s late-night offerings–Howard Korder’s Imagining America and Stephen Gregg’s Sex Lives of Superheroes–are as minimal and minuscule as Cornell boxes, though no less intricately crafted.

The first, written in 1987 at the height of the televangelist movement, hypothesizes a meeting at which the advertising director for a major Bible-thumping corporation and a successful producer of video commercials play power games while arguing about the best way to sell God to the American public. The game ends with the man of the camera triumphing over the man of the church–or does it? Intentionally or otherwise, Korder has left his characters’ actions ambiguous–an ambiguity that is sustained by the poker-faced performances of David Williams and John Baker, under the direction of G. Scott Thomas. One could also conclude that the artist toadied to the sponsor to get the job doing a commercial spot, or that the Hollywood slickster beat the southern bumpkin. Then again, the playwright, who writes with the accuracy of one who has experienced similar meetings firsthand, may be engaging in “I wish I’d said to him” fantasies.

Sex Lives of Superheroes also deals with power games–superpower games. Michael is an expert on the sexuality of comic-book fantasy characters, and his favorite theory is that comic-book protagonists are either asexual or omnisexual, and that those characters who do not have some sort of secret identity are most frequently the former. Michael’s own sex life isn’t so good either–his sadistic ex-girlfriend has been carting away his furniture piece by piece, while the obsessed Michael stands by helpless. He also has nightmares in which she humiliates him during his lectures by asking questions he can’t answer: Who was the first comic-book character ever to have sex with someone from another dimension? But everything changes when a young woman with a secret identity of her own (take note, all you comic-book readers: the unseen friend who introduces them is named “Perry”) enters his life. Under the direction of David Williams, G. Scott Thomas is an appealing sci-fi nerd; he is well supported by Kimberly Muller as the castrating Lisa and Jill Murray as the liberating Elenor.

As hit-and-miss as Griffin’s record sometimes appears to be, the company is to be commended for providing an outlet for the works of new playwrights. These two scripts are not perfect, by any means–Imagining America rarely rises above an extended acting exercise. But in the hands of the Griffin artists, they emerge as original and engaging.