Would you say your art is about being a black American?
No. Well, I guess it just depends on my mood.
—Afro-Futurist artist Hebru Brantley, responding to a question in a 2011 Reader interview
Let us pause a moment to contemplate Regina Taylor. You probably know her face from the occasional TV movie or series. A few years back, for instance, she played Molly Blane, wife of an army black-ops squad leader, on CBS’s The Unit. You almost certainly know her writing from Crowns, the gospel-saturated warhorse that according to the Goodman Theatre website “was the most performed musical in the country in 2006.” But under these routinely successful personas there appears to be another, weirder Taylor—not avant-garde or innovative, exactly, but nervy as hell.
I should’ve recognized it four and a half years ago when her trilogy the Trinity River Plays ran at Goodman. A family saga covering 17 years (i.e., the life cycle of certain cicadas), it was big and busy—a “riot of motifs, metaphors, conceits, subtexts, and story lines,” as I said in my review. What I didn’t appreciate then is that Taylor never backed down from the chaos.
And neither does her latest, Stop. Reset., which is getting its Chicago premiere under her own direction, also at Goodman. If anything, it’s even busier and nervier. This time around Taylor has latched on to the aesthetics of Afro-Futurism, the genre named by white cultural critic Mark Dery but practiced by a coterie of black authors, artists, and musicians reaching back to self-proclaimed extraterrestrial Sun Ra, all of whom used science-fiction conventions to get at the strangeness of their America.
As Dery points out in the introduction to his 1993 interview collection Black to the Future, Afro-Futurism is a logical means of expression because “African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements: official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).”
But the genre doesn’t merely reflect oppression—it also presents avenues for escape. If Hebru Brantley combines street style and anime to give a ragtag earthiness to the children he habitually draws, he also depicts them flying like superheroes.
Stop. Reset. makes intriguing use of that paradox.
The play unfolds in the near future, at the offices of a firm called Alexander Ames Chicago Black Publisher. Described as the oldest and “top” black publishing house in the world, AACBR has, realistically enough, hit on hard times. The founder’s business-whiz son engineered a merger that looked like a godsend a few years back, but the younger Ames has since died, sales stink, and barring a quick turnaround, the new corporate partner is threatening to step in and slash everything in sight. Both as writer and as director, Taylor gets tremendous comic mileage out of desperate employees careening through four of the five stages of grief (stage five, acceptance, doesn’t signify) while they wait to see where the axes will fall.
Meanwhile, the elder Ames, the one who put his name on the door so many decades ago, is still mourning the loss of his bright boy. Marvelously inhabited by Eugene Lee, he’s listless when we first see him, taking refuge in crossword puzzles and tree-based books, crankily holding the line against the curse of the digital.
But then along comes J—a being from the distant future who’s apparently taken over the body of a 20-year-old janitor (“This chassis is my ride,” he tells Ames) in order to earn points toward a mysterious “golden ticket” to ultimate freedom. What specifically caused Edgar Miguel Sanchez’s dancerly J to wash up at AACBR—and why nobody throws him out given how crazy he acts—remain unsolved questions. But he soon enough becomes an Ariel to old Ames’s Prospero in their common struggle for liberation.
As with the Trinity River Plays, Taylor throws in way more than she can reasonably use: a record snowstorm, a significant anniversary, a division of scenes into chapters, loads of media, an explicit attempt to link J to trickster myths when it could just as well have been left implied. Some playwrights take the kitchen-table approach, Taylor’s is kitchen sink. And yet Stop. Reset. is compelling—maybe even important in that it offers a way past the familiar strategies for representing American black people on the American stage. Debate the existence of postracialism as much as you want—revere August Wilson as much as you like—the realities of African-American identity are much more complex at this moment than what we’ve seen expressed so far. That Taylor and her excellent cast endow this expression with so much pleasure is an enormous plus. v