On the eve of a grand jury’s decision on the killing of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, Collidescope: Adventures in Pre-and Post-Racial America is a boldly courageous indictment on the origins of racial injustice in America, breathtaking in brutal honesty and astounding in creative genius. Co-created and co-directed by Ping Chong, award-winning theatre artist and pioneer in theatre media and Talvin Wilks, acclaimed playwright and dramaturg, Collidescope literally takes you on a space ride through time warps in America’s twisted racial history. It shines a microscopic light on where we have been, how we got here and where we are headed if homo sapiens fails to ignite fire in the soul for social justice and recognition of our common humanity.
The School of Theatre, Dance, and Performing Arts of the University of Maryland is on a special mission through this incredible work to shake us to the core to come to terms with the ongoing violence and inhuman treatment of African Americans and the heroes and s/heroes who have fought against it. This work was prompted by the urgent search for answers in response to the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown and the repeated killings of young, unarmed African American men in this country. Unabashedly, the production lays bare the evidential facts, half-truths and clever hypocrisies about America’s racial past in an asymmetric, non-linear historic that prompts you to confront head-on the dark psychological underpinnings of black-white relations. It is a profound soul search that examines our tainted history while making a statement about our future that cannot be denied.
The creatively imaginative set by Scenic Designer Lydia Francis is a laboratory-like space capsule. You know, as soon as you enter the intimate Kogod Theater, that you are in for a very different kind of ride. Star Trek, Twilight Zone or maybe a 2001 A Space Odyssey are images that come to mind. It’s as if you are positioned to view the entire unfoldment of America’s racial past from the perspective of an alien from outer space. Cold, steely gray colors, perfectly squared neutral-colored tiles completely frame the set with ticker-tape commentaries running by Projection Designer Ian McClain, above the rim of the stage that anchor the historical context for the show’s series of vignettes. Costumes by Kara Waala continue the Trekkie vibe with straight-edged waistcoats and cage skirts with an out -of this- world, unfeeling nature that visually depict the sterile history of America’s racial injustices.
The dead body of Trayvon Martin lying on the ground is the first myopic that assaults your senses. It sets the tone for a deeper look. With fictional texts and original text sources from: a slave petition to the House of Representatives for the State or Massachusetts in 1774 ; Fanny Lou Hamer’s testimony before the Democratic National Convention Credentials in 1956; the brash, unapologetic words of Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 to James Baldwin speaking at the West Indian Student Center in London, circa 1969, Collidescope captures the feeling tone of African America’s plea for equal treatment and personal dignity. Visually surreal yet dealing with the coarseness of a difficult reality, the show’s thematics try to make sense of America’s painful racial history. Collidescope is a riveting experience from start to finish with you-could- hear-a- pin-drop kind of attention from the audience.
The production has lighter, comedic moments despite its serious nature. In one vignette that goes back to the days of the Great Migration when blacks looked for any kind of job to survive, the father of a young family applies for and gets work as a cook in a wealthy, white household in the Lincoln Park suburb of Chicago. “Hattie Mae” is the story of how the father dresses as a woman to get that job which was advertised for females only. “She” gets the job but Hattie Mae suffers every kind of human indignity at the hands of her employers, their bratty kid including sexual assault by the man of the house. A man dressed as a woman usually breaks out the guffaws and Hattie Mae hilariously does all she can to hide her manliness. Forced to sing a song supposedly beloved by black people, Hattie Mae leads the audience in a group sing of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and we laughed our way through it in satiric derision right along with her. When she gets shot in her employers’ home in the middle of a domestic tussle over the husband’s maid fetish, Hattie Mae takes the cash to shush the authorities. The message here is that white entitlement can’t go to jail for its crimes.
The ensemble of Collidesope is amazing. All of the performers are current undergrads or alums of the School of Theater, Dance and Performing Studies and deserve special note: Moriamo Akibu, Riley Bartlebaugh, Olivia Brann, Summer Brown, Joseph Graf, Philip Kershaw, Weilong Li, Vaughn Midder, James Skaggs, Kyle Travers, Korinn Walfall, Christophe Walkup, Aidan Walsh, and Jeffrey Dorfman. They all play multiple, cross-gender roles in an interchange of characters from different time periods. Their characterizations flow effortlessly in sync, testament no doubt to Leslie Felbain’s superb movement/character coaching.
Standout performances by Vaughn Midder who portrays Paul Robeson in a fearlessly moving monologue, and Moriamo Akibu, who plays James Baldwin with pride, eloquence, in that intelligent, jazzy way of “Jimmy” Baldwin. Both knockout performances received spontaneous applause.
A recurring scene was the southern ball in the 1860s complete with southern hospitality and southern belles out to catch a wealthy gentleman. This was one of the few scenes with light dancing, and although the dancing was not noteworthy and had an air of superficiality, its message aligned with the conversation of the day, straight out of Gone with the Wind. Elite southern gents and ladies discussed the Negro problem and kidded each other, with gentility, into believing that “freedom would be their doom.”
Collidescope is a lengthy production, particularly the first act. A shorter presentation with the elimination of scenes that were exactly repeated for effect might have greater impact.
There are two playbills for Collidescope. One is about the cast and crew. The other is a litany of evidence and testimonials from America’s racial past.
Testimonial 1925: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood.” – Lu Xun, author.
The final image of Collidescope is a riveting and shocking one. Pre-racial America is known. What shall we write in ink about a post-racial America?
Running Time: Two hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Collidescope: Adventures in Pre-and Post-Racial America plays through November 14, 2014 at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – 3800 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), at University of Maryland in College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 405.ARTS (2787), or purchase them online.