In his one-man show BLACK!, British actor, playwright and storyteller Michael Washington Brown takes on the personae of four diverse black men. With a brief introduction, he marks out the territory, an exploration of how blackness is viewed both from within a culture and from without. His first character is a smooth talking American who has strong opinions about the very term “black” and regales the audience with the multiple meanings of the word. He likes the straightforward simplicity of it as opposed to the somewhat awkward hyphenated appellation African-American. He likes black and eschews the awkward division of people into their ethnic and racial pigeonholes that tend to divide rather than unite. His American has strong opinions about music, manners, love and more.
In his British guise, he tells the story of his parents who entered the open door of the Commonwealth to move from the Caribbean to London for a better life. He describes the struggle for acceptance against the often bitter, often quite open racism that black immigrants encountered. In the recent British crime thriller series “Endeavor,” which is set in the mid-1960s, the nastiness of some whites is on display, especially a hair salon that openly states “no black hair.” Britain and the United States have indeed come a long way from the ‘60s, but racism is pernicious and pervasive both there and here.
Mr. Brown’s parents are Jamaican on his father’s side and Barbadian on his mother’s so his third character smacks of joyful authenticity. In the musical sound and cadences of the islands, he stresses the closeness of the island families with anecdotes about how children are raised with intense love and care.
His final character is a hybrid. He plays both an African doctor and the interviewer who questions him about the current status of black Africa. The doctor bemoans the fact that the African nations, although nominally free of colonialism, are still not the masters their destiny. Foreign corporations that give some of the people the illusion of wealth dominate many countries. The key to prosperity and independence, the doctor avers, is education. With forty percent of the population illiterate, they will never be free to chart their course in the world.
The few examples above do not truly exemplify the richness and passion of Mr. Brown’s performance. With high good humor, he exemplifies the pride he feels in his own blackness and the joy he feels in being who he is, all the while acknowledging that, as is true of all people in all times, there are good and bad. Will racism evaporate with time? Not in any time that matters to us now. His hope for the future calls to mind a hope I always feel when watching Star Trek, that of a future in which race or ethnicity, although honored, is irrelevant to the important work at hand.
Mr. Brown’s show filled me with hope. It is a joy to experience. Go! See for yourselves.
BLACK! plays on Sundays at 7pm on September 16, 23, 30, October 7 & 14 at Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.