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Review: Black Rep's "Emergency" A Sizzling One Man Show

(Courtesy of Stewart Goldstein)

Last year, Ron Conner led Black Rep casts in four out of five productions, and from the first, became one of my favorite actors to watch. This year he leads the Black Rep away from its twenty-six year home at the Grandel Theater to the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theater on the campus of Washington University and opens the new season with a sizzling one man show, Emergency. (The Black Rep was recently unceremoniously dumped from their long-time home. Hotchner will not be a permanent space for them, but was the perfect space for this particular show.)

Generally, I’m not a big fan of one-man shows but Artistic Director, Rob Himes, smartly directs this one and Conner gives us twenty or so distinct characters, young, old, transgender, men, women, sophisticated and not. The playwright, Daniel Beaty, bounces the play between Liberty Island, where a slave ship has phantasmagorically appeared in the harbor, raised from its watery grave with all the white bones still in chains, and the Apollo Theater, where a national poetry slam explores the voices of 21st century African-American men. Conner transitions seamlessly between his characters and picks up each voice, each accent, each mannerism, every time.

There are wonderful touches, lights by Eric Cope and onscreen images help us transition between the two settings. Conner does a great job miming his props; cigarettes, microphones, cellphones, and pound cake all exist for his characters and therefore, for us. It is the commitment he gives each and every character that brings them alive for us. Bravo.

There is much to chew on in this eighty minute play. Remarkably, during the talk-back, the audience was much more interested in how he learned all those lines and how he moved between characters than in what the playwright was saying about learning from history. This is a play about remembering where we come from, and what sacrifices were made by others, wittingly or unwittingly, to bring us to our current success, or failure. Bessie, raising her granddaughter, Clarissa, who lives with AIDS, delivers a line I found most arresting. Bessie tells the reporter, “We need to love ourselves back to wholeness.” This line resonates powerfully and translates to all Americans in our fractured lives and disconnected worlds.

There did not seem to be a direct line between those who remember and success, or those who forget and failure, yet there was the feeling that remembering the past allowed these men and women to fully embrace their current “beingness” and the exploration of remembering helps the process of moving forward and beyond. There is much to be discussed in this commentary on the human condition and our yearning for freedom, so bring a friend so you have someone to discuss it with on the way home. 

Emergency continues at the Hotchner Studio on Washington University campus through September 15th. Don’t miss it.

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