Michael Washington Brown pulls no punches with ‘Black!’

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Michael Washington Brown stars in “Black!,” at the Athenaeum Theatre. | Christopher Fryar Photo

Right before the lights go out on the first act of “Black!,” playwright/star Michael Washington Brown asks whether “we’re still making slaves” out of African Americans. Previously in the one-man show, Brown has described Willie Lynch’s 1712 manifesto “The Making of Slave,” a vile, step-by-step primer on how slave owners can “keep the body, take the mind” of their property. “Black!” argues that Lynch’s 300-year-old lesson plan is still alive and well. “Psychological propaganda” against African Americans, he notes, has been going on for so long, few even realize its existence anymore. With “Black!,” Brown sets out to explore the perspectives of people of color in the United States, Africa, Jamaica and London, delving into the myriad meanings of the word “black” and how the word itself impacts the people it describes.

‘Black’ Highly recommended When: Through July 30 Where: Athenaeum Studio Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Tickets: $25 Info: AthenaeumTheatre.org

Brown doesn’t hold back. Playing different black men from different points on the globe, he blasts the label “African American” as inaccurate and divisive. And he excoriates African Americans who “seem to be more comfortable perpetrating negative stereotypes about our people” than helping each other break the cycle of poverty.

Brown also has words for those see “success” as nothing more than a flashy set of tire rims and a booming car stereo. He condemns on “angry” rap music (although allowing that a simple change in the lyrics — substitute “queens” for “b—–s” and “brothers” for “[N-word]” – and you might have music worth listening to, he muses) and delivers a list of things African-Americans don’t do (“hike, ski and see psychiatrists” among them). He uses humor to lay into a culture where light-skinned African Americans hate on those who are darker-skinned. In one of the final scenes, Browntakes on a the character of an African man being interviewed about the violence and poverty that plague the continent: Education is key to breaking the cycle of “mental incarceration,” he argues.

In sum, there’s no shortage of provocative material in Brown’s exploration of “the black global community.” The structure of the piece isn’t the strongest, and there are a few technical glitches marring it. But as Brown digs into the “daily black experience” of Americans, Caribbeans and Europeans, he creates a story that’s both compelling and enlightening. The first act of the 90-minute production (which does not need an intermission) is Brown’s exegesis on what ails African Americans in the United States. From the U.S., Brown takes the audience to his native England, and then to Jamaica and Africa.

Working on a stage that’s bare but for a chair, Brown is a mostly compelling performer – which makes it all the more frustrating when the production’s incidental music repeatedly drowns out his voice. “Black!” doesn’t tell a story so much as offer a series of interview-like segments. In turn shocking, funny and enraging, Brown has crafted a piece that’s ideal for post-show talk-backs. In the simple, five-letter title, there are endless issues to unpack. Agree or disagree with him, Brown’s conversation is vital.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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