Vivisections From the Blown Mind

Goodman Studio

Even in the darkest hours of Chicago theater you could almost always depend on the Goodman. Back in the 80s, when the studio was overflowing with premieres by Elaine May and David Mamet and David Rabe, the Goodman was arguably the most vital theater force in the country. But these days the artistic staff at Goodman resemble blind-folded revelers at a party swatting haphazardly at a pinata. Sometimes they strike the donkey and out pours a shower of goodies (usually August Wilson or Spaulding Gray). More often than not, however, they just whiff.

Alonzo D. Lamont Jr.’s Vivisections From the Blown Mind, receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Studio, is the sort of play that looks great on paper. Topical, explosive, and politically correct, this critique of hip hop culture promises a savage behind-the-scenes look at the destructive forces within the rap-music industry that are artistically bankrupting the African American community. But about the only worthwhile things to come out of this hopelessly confused bit of dull, overwritten, oversimplified agitprop are a couple of charismatically idiosyncratic performances. Plus the play may encourage fledgling playwrights–hey, if the Goodman produced this, they might produce anything.

The first problem is the protagonist, a crossover rap artist named Castro whose fusion of hip hop beats and Latin grooves has vaulted him to the top of the pops and a promising Hollywood career. At his press conferences (dressed in outfits designed by Michael Alan Stein that suggest the bastard child of MC Hammer, Nehru, and Tom Jones) he’s a disarming presence, his witty, profanity-laced cracks disguising a complete lack of political consciousness and a selfish obsession with the trappings of wealth. But in private he’s a tortured soul continually poised on the verge of self-destruction. Once a shy English-lit student with a thing for Emily Dickinson, he’s beset by visions chiding him for having sold out his race.

Lamont refuses to pin Castro down to any specific musical subcategory: he seems part gangsta rapper, appearing in films with a submachine gun a la Ice Cube, part ladies’ man love rapper a la LL Cool J, and part vacuous moron a la Vanilla Ice–as if all these elements could coexist in one person, and every style of rap were interchangeable. Castro’s appeal, like the plot, remains elusive.

Later we encounter Castro in his palatial digs (designed by James Dardenne), which resemble the lair of Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor. Here Castro is waited upon by his one-time best friend and present lackey Dusty and his manipulative, sluttish manager/idol maker Angel-ique. They await the arrival of an interviewer from a national black magazine who’s ostensibly writing a story about Castro’s latest film project.

The first act is mostly exposition, preparing us for the interview in the second act. There’s no conflict, just a series of disjointed arguments and conversations, and no consistent mood or tone to any of the characters. One moment Castro is all bluster and bravado, then he’s pitying himself, wishing he were back in college; one moment he’s assaulting Angelique in the hot tub, the next he’s holding her like some Tiffany chandelier. Angelique is even more absurdly contradictory. To call her a character would be generous, to call her a stereotype understatement. Little more than a conflicted series of reactions to whatever Castro happens to be doing or saying, she has about as much depth as Flat Stanley of the famous children’s book.

The second act introduces us to Goliath, the sly, charming magazine reporter who’s come on a mission to destroy Castro’s image–in Goliath’s estimation, the man has done irreparable harm to the black community. Likening Castro’s grinning, gun-toting antics to an old-time minstrel act, the interviewer assaults his subject with viciously clever questions, inducing him to make surprising revelations and pushing him ever closer to a nervous breakdown.

Lamont’s intriguing arguments in this scene might inspire some good postshow conversations, but sometimes his logic seems twisted. Lamont oversimplifies by using a mythical, undefined rap artist to show the decline of artistic values, and he focuses on the worst excesses of the art, all but ignoring the explosion of musical experimentation and political savoir faire in the highest forms of hip hop culture. Castro is a straw man, so skewering him for not having the artistic integrity of the Harlem Renaissance artists, as Lamont does, seems ridiculous.

Any merit Lamont’s politics might have is completely undermined by his ridiculous plotting, which nearly turns the second act of his play into a farce as his characters’ contradictions are heightened to the point of absurdity. When Angelique learns that Castro walked off the set of his latest picture and effectively ruined the film, she flies into a rage–but moments later, after a sip of champagne, she’s whirling in Dusty’s arms and giggling profusely. Soon after, when the champagne has worn off slightly, she jumps off the spool again and begins furiously making phone calls, trying to piece together the shards of Castro’s career.

In Chuck Smith’s staging the actors who are not the focus of scenes pantomime conversations, trying to piece together some semblance of coherence. But though the actors struggle to infuse Lamont’s blustery prose with some significance, ultimately the script damns them. Darryl Alan Reed’s frightening magnetism in the role of Castro makes him watchable long after he’s stopped making sense, and Daniel Bryant is wise and witty as Dusty. Cedric Young as Goliath has his moments as the one character grounded in reality, and Michelle Elise Duffy, given one of the most thankless female roles in recent memory, does what she can. But it would take more than great actors to rescue Vivisections From the Blown Mind. You’d need an editor, a really good word-processing program, maybe even a magician.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Liz Lauren.