Credit: Claire Demos

“Can’t a black man just wanna hang himself for pleasure?” —Darnell in Hang Man

A ll hell broke loose back in 1969, when Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint. The world got mad because a distinguished author with lots of higher education had written scenes full of explicit, often perverse, and usually hysterical sex. But lots of Jews got even madder, because not only was that distinguished author Jewish but so was the character he portrayed as either having or imagining the sex: Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the city of New York and a walking compendium of every guilt-crazed, mother-haunted, shiksa-obsessed, self-loathing, and, yes, liver-shtupping stereotype that might attach itself to an assimilated midcentury, middle-class American son of Abraham. The book was anti-Semitic, they charged, its satiric intent and Roth’s roots notwithstanding. It endorsed fraught caricatures, parading them before people who probably believed them already: a shanda für die goyim.

I thought of Portnoy’s Complaint when I saw Hang Man by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, getting its world premiere now at the Gift Theatre. Partly because Osei-Kuffour’s narrative bears a peculiar ghost of a resemblance to Roth’s, but mostly because she shares Roth’s fuck-it-all attitude toward holy/profane tropes related to her African-American identity. Like Roth, she’s admirably bad at keeping her mouth shut.

You can see what I mean even in the half-light before the show starts. Arnel Sancianco’s set features a big, abstract tree with a very realistic noose suspended from one of its branches. A black actor (Gregory Fenner) appears on a platform set into the tree and puts the noose around his neck. Then he steps out into air, completing one of the most grotesque, traumatic, essential pictures in the black American lexicon: the lynching.

Except, we quickly find out, this isn’t a lynching. Not exactly, anyway. It seems the black man hanging from the tree—a guy named Darnell, residing until that moment in what the script calls a “a shit town in Mississippi”—gets off on autoerotic asphyxiation, i.e., masturbating while he strangles. He’s done it many times before in the solitude of the woods, where he’s beyond the reach of the people whose money he’s gambled away and, per Portnoy, the mother who drives him nuts enough to seek release in dangerous sex. Something just went wrong this time. We know all this because being dead doesn’t prevent Darnell talking to us from his pinata perch in the tree. Osei-Kuffour and director Jess McLeod give us what has to be one of the most eerily comic images in Chicago theater history when Fenner’s amiable, dangling Darnell lifts his head and speaks.

What transforms Darnell’s death into a lynching is the stuff that happens after he chokes. The path running by his tree turns out to be a thoroughfare for the ridiculous and the tragic. It starts with mean white bigot Archie (a creepily convincing Paul D’Addario) and his dimwitted white girlfriend Marjarie (Angela Morris), fucking in the clearing beneath Darnell’s feet. When the two gross lovers notice the dead man, Archie wants to clear out. But Marjarie conceives a passion for this strange fruit. Sinking into a delusion that becomes funnier and funnier as it gets more and more extreme, she falls in love, brings him food, attempts communication, and starts making herself over as a black woman a la Foxy Brown, complete with minstrel greasepaint and Afro wig. Meanwhile, others wander by: Archie’s inane cop pal Wipp (Andy Fleischer, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri mode), as well as Darnell’s forlorn creditor Jahaad (Martel Manning), his pissed-off sister Sage (Jennifer Glasse), and his cinemaphile niece, G (Mariah Sydnei Gordon), the only person to whom he’ll give the time of eternity.

Before it’s done Hang Man has simultaneously traduced and refreshed a whole slew of symbols sanctified by black suffering in America. Osei-Kuffour clearly feels comfortable playing with that sacred iconography out in public. It’ll be interesting to see whether she’s received as a traitor, like Roth was 50 years ago, or as a treasure, the way he is now. As a Jew, I know that people who live with minority status want to see themselves represented in the mainstream only until representation becomes less than heroic. Then they’re not so sure.

McLeod supplies a creditable premiere, though she could’ve gone even further out on a limb, as it were, to punch up the wildness already present in Morris’s metamorphosis and Fenner’s absurd, somehow endearing suspension. The designers might also look for ways to make Fenner’s rigging grow less rather than more obtrusive as the 90-minute show builds. It’s a distraction when it most needs to be invisible.   v