The African-American experience from 15 points of revueby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Summing up the state of Black America in 2006 would be a monumental task for a single playwright. So Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis got a group of them to share the load. In its latest production, "Point of Revue," 15 African-American writers weigh in on the subject. One critic says the result is a production that stretches common perceptions of black theater.
St. Paul, Minn. — This isn't the first time Mixed Blood Theatre has asked a gaggle of writers to speak to the same topic.
Two years ago it staged the critically lauded "Bill of Rights," which featured nine writers pondering the modern-day relevance of one of America's most important documents.
The new production, "Point of Review," is presented like a vaudeville show, 15 separate pieces woven together by music, song and dance.
Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler says when the theater commissioned 15 black writers for the play, its only requirement was that they not be afraid to express their opinions.
"The sort of 'through-line' surprisingly became that they picked a topic and you thought they were going for one thing and they took a left turn and surprised you with what the real topic was and what their point of view was," Reuler says.
A piece called "Public Transportation" looks at black appreciation of theater.
When a young black woman meets a local theater actor on the bus, she fails to recognize him or the prominent black theater company he belongs to. She does recall her only trip to the theater, when she was in high school.
[DIALOGUE FROM PLAY] "They told us it was going to be a play about some sistahs. It wadn't nothin' but some white people talkin' in all that Shakespeare talk about how they need to get off the farm and get to Moscow or something. I kind of liked it though. Those big cushy seats. Theater! That's some of the best sleep you can get."
"Point of Revue" moves along at a rapid pace. There's an examination of the inner struggle of a black mother of a child with Down Syndrome. Another piece focuses on African immigrants in corporate America.
"Blown Away," written by Twin Cities writer and actor Gavin Lawrence, is a musical elegy for a teenager who's just been shot and killed.
Lawrence compares the murdered teen to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Mississippi boy whose lynching in 1955 catalyzed the civil rights movement.
"And I repeat this line in the song, 'police line, do not cross, Emmett Till has been killed again. He was a good boy,'" Lawrence says. "And I repeat that because I think there are many Emmett Tills, potential Emmett Tills running around in our country today, and It would be good to save some of them."
Writing for The St. Paul Pioneer Press, freelance theater critic Christy DeSmith raved about "Point of Revue," particularly its writing and unpredictability.
In her opinion, there is not one weak link in the production. She admits, however, that stringing a series of mini-plays together into one revue is bound to strike at least one chord for just about anyone.
"It's a little non-committal," DeSmith says. "You know, it's very "ADHD" friendly. If you're getting bored with one piece or if one piece isn't speaking to you, you can move on to the next. So, success is built in. There's something for everyone."
DeSmith says she came to the production hoping for lightheartedness and fearing heavyhandedness. She believes some social issue themes have been over-explored in black theater, and that may affect an audience's expectations.
"When we hear that we're going to see a production that captures the contemporary African-American experience, we think we know what that means," she says. "And somebody who went into see this production, 'Point of Revue,' would be completely blown away."
Having staged two similarly structured plays in "Bill of Rights" and now "Point of Revue," Mixed Blood Theatre seems to have latched on to a successful formula. It's developing a production for next year that again features an array of writers, this time working on a single piece. Jack Reuler says the theater has commissioned five bi-racial playwrights to take a tag team approach to writing one play about being bi-racial. It's called "Messy Utopia."