The late Darnell (Gregory Fenner) is mourned by his niece (Mariah Sydnei Gordon, rear) and sister (Jennifer Glasse) in “Hang Man” at Gift Theatre. | Claire Demos photo

At Gift Theatre’s ‘Hang Man,’ ground keeps shifting beneath the guy in a noose

There are few, if any, more viscerally disturbing images in our world – and specifically our country – than that of a black man hanging from a tree. In “Hang Man,” an audacious and enigmatic new play by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, that image confronts us for most of the 85-minute running time.

And it’s not just a static photograph. An actor (an intense, exceptional Gregory Fenner) is suspended above the playing space with a wire and hidden harness, his head through a noose. And right from the opening moments, in the ultra-intimate Gift Theatre, he looks up and speaks to us.

“I was made from s— and blood,” he begins. “We all were. Momma told me that.”

‘Hang Man’ ★★1⁄2 When: Through April 29 Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $30-$40 Info: thegifttheatre.org Run time: 1 hour and 25 minutes, with no intermission

Let’s just say … it certainly grabs your attention.

For its first third or so, “Hang Man” keeps on startling us with the unexpected. A white woman named Margarie (Angela Morris) spots the dead man — we find out his name is Darnell — while having sex in the woods at night with her crass boyfriend Archie (Paul D’Addario). Her initial reaction, to want to call for help, soon transforms into an odd aesthetic pleasure: “I think it’s kinda beautiful,” she says. “I think it’s the ultimate for him maybe. Freedom.” The next day, she brings her other lover, a junior cop named Wipp (Andy Fleischer), to see the body, expecting that he will think it’s “cool.” Soon after she is wearing an Afro wig and bringing Darnell food, claiming she’s in love.

The most surprising moment of all is when Darnell’s niece, who goes by the single letter G (Mariah Sydnei Gordon), walks to school through the woods, encounters him, and he looks up and says hello.

“Why you always doing that?” she asks. “Hanging yourself like that.”

“I like it,” he responds.

“Hang Man” is not the type of play that lets you settle easily into its reality. It has the texture of the soft but pebbly mud-like surface that set designer Arnel Sanciano has covered the entire stage with, even for indoor scenes. Even in a production that is directed fluidly and steadily by Jess McLeod, it’s not possible to get steady footing, and that’s purposeful.

At times, the work reminded me of the fanciful early plays of Sam Shepard, but more socially pointed, and dealing in Southern iconography and stereotypes — the play is set in rural Mississippi — rather than Western ones, although Darnell’s sister Sage (Jennifer Glasse) does dress like a cowgirl and frequents a honky-tonk. And you can feel the influence of a writer like Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of “Topdog/Underdog,” who simultaneously wrestles with history and reality. That said, Osei-Kuffour’s voice is certainly her own, and this work does show her off as a playwright to watch for theatrically poetic daring.

Like Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” which premiered last year at Steppenwolf, “Hang Man” endeavors to find a way to express in theatrical terms the state of black men in America. Nwandu borrowed from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” depicting a world surrounded by dangerous threats, where time needs to be filled but there is nothing productive to do. In “Hang Man,” we similarly need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Darnell stays up in the tree long after he’s discovered, because his own family — in fact, even he himself — treats his death as routine. Meanwhile, white characters either express no concern at all, or, in Margarie’s case, co-opt his suffering to make it her own.

“Hang Man” does ultimately feel overly elusive, perhaps even literary rather than dramatic. A subplot relationship between Sage and a convict who converted to Islam in prison (Martel Manning) never becomes compelling. Other than G (who is played so beautifully by teenager Gordon), there aren’t characters to care about in the traditional sense, and Osei-Kuffour resists metaphors as much as she suggests them.

But there is something unforgettable about Fenner staring at the audience while hanging, and he is extraordinary in his ability to capture a combination of charm and anger. “Hang Man” is for adventurous theatergoers who are willing to have a disturbing image burned into their memory and don’t mind far, far more questions than answers.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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