Review: Satire stacked on stacks in ‘Everybody Black’

The cast of “Everybody Black” | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

The plays will continue until April 7, but there is always a moment of sadness that comes when one sees the year’s last world premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. But if the metaphorical circus must leave town, this year it’s going out on a high note, with Dave Harris’ “Everybody Black.”

“Everybody Black” is funny, complex, difficult and has so many layers of satire, irony, satire of ironic racism and post-irony satire, that one leaves the theater a bit dizzy, though pleasantly so. The play still manages to address The Black Experience (Harris’ phrase) in a way that makes the Mostly White Theater Audience aware that they are complicit in creating a history of black trauma and oppression in America, no matter how “woke” they are.

I generally try to keep my racial, ethnic, gender and sexual identity out of reviews to the best of my ability, but “Everybody Black” sort of demands that it be recognized. Harris’ script directly takes on the white gaze and directly addresses the whiteness of theater and its audiences.

I suspect it spoke to a black people in the audience, discussing the difference between truth and performance, trauma and laughter, as well as presenting moments of sheer beauty. “Everybody Black” also seemed to frequently indict Black America for its own oppression. Still, to suggest that I can know what the play meant to the black portion of the audience would just demonstrate the immensity of presumption and white privilege pervading America’s arts criticism.

The meta-theatrical cake starts with The Black Historian (J. Cameron Barnett) addressing the audience directly, mocking black playwrights, white historians and just about everybody under the sun, as he imparts unto the viewers that he has been given the impossible task of conveying the authentic version of black history and experience.

However, the white historians that asked Black Historian to do this impossible thing offered him a large sum of money to do so, and he reasons “Hey, why not take their money?”

Ashley N. Hildreth and J. Cameron Barnett | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

As Black Historian, Barnett is an enticing whirlwind of creative mania. He’s literally shucking and jiving one moment and the next he’s jumping into the role of “Mamalicious,” the tired comedy tactic of a black man playing the sassy black grandmother best typified by Tyler Perry’s Madea. Just as quickly he’s taking on the type of guy generally referred to as a “Hotep,” and in this instance literally named “Hotep.”

The rest of the ensemble cast — Christina Acosta Robinson, Sharina Martin, Galen Ryan Kane, Ashley N. Hildreth and NSangou Njikam — give performances that are likewise awesome. The program informs viewers that there are more than 30 characters in the play. Some appear in scenes with other characters, though just as often they address the audience directly in the monologue.

Njikam mostly plays characters that take on the role of a paternal figure or truth teller, though the two are not always synonymous. In one scene he is the father in a cliche-laden sitcom about a black family, and in another, he is Every Black Father Ever. But he’s also Struggle Rapper, and a nameless enslaved person sitting at a bus stop.  

Kane, on the other hand, is more likely to play a self-centered, money-minded youngster, like the rapper I Got Money, and the modern day black man sitting at the bus stop with Njikim’s enslaved person, complaining that his day was worse than living on a plantation.

Christina Acosta Robinson | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

Hildreth is likewise most frequently young and callow, whether she is the daughter in that sitcom, of That N*gga that Missed the March.

Robinson and Martin have character tracks that are a little harder to pin down, though in general Martin seems to be a seeker or a lover, and Robinson lost or resigned.

“Everybody Black” is hilarious for sure, and just as surely presents moments of sincere rage, reflection or indictment, dropping the satire, though never the meta-theatricality.

Everyone in the cast moves so quickly between those sincere moments, to characters that are probably just cliche and then to racist caricatures that the mostly white audience with whom I saw the play had a very difficult time deciding when to laugh. Awkward titters abounded, as did full-throated laughs. 

My suggestion to the white audience is to keep laughing the whole time, but welcome the moment when the play asks you to see some racism in yourself that you don’t like to admit is there.

For a perspective black audience, I’ll just say “Everybody Black” is an incredibly well-acted and staged mediation, and leave the deeper digging into the validity, honesty, themes and ideas of this play to the far too few black theater critics in Louisville. 

“Everybody Black” continues as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays through April 7. Actors Theatre is located at 316 W. Main St.

Insider’s reviews of the 43rd annual Humana Festival: