History pays a mind-blowing visit in Daniel Beaty's heartfelt and generally winning solo show "Emergency," which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. In the waters of New York Harbor, a stone's throw from the ever-fabulous Lady Liberty, a 400-year-old slave ship surfaces to the amazement of a growing throng of African Americans.
Though we never actually see the physical vessel onstage, the crowds of sightseers and tourist merchants hawking "slave ship buttons" assure us that this is no floating phantom. Beyond rational explanation, the invisible past has materialized, allowing all who are haunted by its long shadow to grapple with a more concrete manifestation of its reality.
Naturally, the reactions are all over the map. Beaty, mutating into characters with the ease of someone flicking a theatrical remote control, lends his elastic voice and mannerisms to the ensuing din.
One well-off black corporate type bemoans the ship's anachronistic appearance: "It's appalling! It's a setback. In 2008 there are black people succeeding in every field -- tennis, golf, we even run for president. This is the last thing we need."
On the other side of the ideological divide, a female scholar, who has written a book on "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome," hopes that the difficult subject of black resentment will no longer be taboo. "This is exactly why most of us never watch those PBS specials or talk about slavery with our children," she says. "We don't know what to do with the anger."
At the center of the story is Rodney, a young man who's made it to the grand finale of "America's Next Top Poet." The program, hosted by Sharita (a Tyra Banks type viewed on fast-forward), provides a forum for spoken-word artists that's apparently watched by millions. Admittedly, this proposition is somewhat harder to buy than an antiquated slave ship circling Manhattan, but it allows Beaty, who appeared on HBO's "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" for two seasons, to strut his impassioned lyrical stuff as he portrays contestants reckoning with the paradoxes and possibilities of being young, gifted and black.
The news that Rodney's father, a Shakespeare scholar whose mental health was rocked after the murder of his wife, has jumped atop the slave ship and is in communion with the spirit of an ancient African chief, has threatened his son's big TV break.
Instead of rehearsing for the competition, Rodney is forced to join his perpetually-single-and-hating-it gay brother, Freddie, on a rescue mission to save their dad, who's the last person they would have expected to be drawn to the ship. Not only did the old man freak out when he learned Rodney wanted to major in African American history, but his paternal motto has always been, "Forget the past. That's why I worked so hard -- so you could start where I left off!"
A loopy parade of characters marches in to widen our perspective on what one of them calls this "Amistad" business.
There's a homeless man (who's given a touching monologue on the memory of his mama's pound cake), a drag-queen prostitute who attracts the guys Freddie longs to date (including a Jamaican heartthrob who decides he's now a rich white guy) and a "slave-ologist," who tells us that the slave ship is named Remembrance and later offers us a harrowing tour of its dungeon, where shrieks and howls of abused prisoners can still be heard.
Beaty is less a master mimic than a sketch artist with a bright eye for detail. He knows these speakers, and there's a visceral sense of his investment in their political awakening. Why political? Because the piece posits a connection between the wound of slavery and the ongoing struggles of black Americans. This is the "emergency" of the title, and the spur to the work's creative advocacy.
For those worried about a wallow in victimhood, get over it. Beaty wants his characters to face the past so they can better face the future. And it's through Rodney, whose family trauma points out the impossibility of evading the most painful chapters in one's history, that we get a handle on the indissoluble links between generations.
The playwright August Wilson conceived of this timeless communal bond as a song, and Beaty, who has a resonantly powerful voice, offers fragments of spirituals and other rousing anthems. Yes, trotting out "Amazing Grace" might seem a tad earnest, but it's a risk Beaty is willing to take in a show that's not ashamed to wear its therapeutic intentions on its sleeve.
If there's an overriding criticism to make of "Emergency," it's that one is always acutely conscious of a young artist working through his own private conflicts. The writing and the acting are strong enough to earn our staunch support, but not perhaps original enough for us to become fully absorbed in them dramatically. In rooting for Beaty, we have less time to get lost in our own private echo of the material.