Review : ‘The Ni¿¿er Lovers’ at Magic Theatre (*****)

L to R: Rotimi Agbabiaka and Aidaa Peerzada flee Georgia for Boston as they attempt to escape from slavery in Mark Anthony Thompson’s hilariously on point debut musical play, “The Ni¿¿er Lovers.” Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

by Charles Kruger 

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Marc Anthony Thompson’s brilliant debut play tells, in the style of a minstrel show (although one in which no blackface is required), the true story of two slaves in Georgia who set out to escape to Boston, Massachusetts. To disguise themselves, they pretend to be a master traveling with a slave, and as a further complication it is the woman of the two who presents herself as the male master.

This is serious material, dealing with such matters as the middle passage, the abuse of slaves, racism, Black self hatred, rape, genocide, alternative gender presentation, and various types of kink. Fun stuff.

Hilarious, in fact. This is a play that will make you cry till you laugh and laugh till you cry until you don’t know what all to do but respond with rapturous applause.

Thompson takes the minstrel tradition, and uses all of its show biz wiles, to turn the whole damn thing on its head, making that racist form a celebration of Black culture and a profound condemnation of white hypocracy. And, man, does he ever have a blast with it!

It has, however, a serious beginning, which reminds us at the start that no matter how much fun we may have, the implications of the history to be explored are no joke. It opens with a somber musical score, flashing lights, the sound of water, screams, whips, and people (adults and babies) crying in despair. We can feel ourselves present with the slaves on a boat making the middle passage. We are in the bottom of the boat. As the lights come up, that scene gives way to a discussion between two Black men standing by a water cooler, wearing loin cloths. One has a bone through his nose. They are discussing their arrival in the New World, which they read about in a travel pamphlet. They have ripe upper class British accents.

One asks the other, “Have you selected the house option or the field option?”

They are clueless, of course. They are set to rights by an older figure, the traditional minstrel show M.C., who asks them if they have read the fine print.

And so it goes, for 90 side splitting, gasp inducing minutes, as this highly skilled ensemble takes us on a trip not just from Georgia to Boston but through 300 years of Afro-American history.

One might expect that the use of the minstrel show format would serve to diminish the seriousness of the content, but that is not the case here. On the contrary, by forcing us to laugh through our tears, it brings rich humanity to the stereotypes being skewered. The comic absurdity is a necessary and healing response to the tragic absurdity of the story.

To achieve these effects, the company and playwright pull out all the comic stops. They pun, they mug, and they repeatedly break the fourth wall. They slip in and out of characters and accents almost randomly and at breakneck speed.

This style of political theatre is a strong tradition in America, familiar to Bay Area audiences from the work of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the Teatro Campesino, to name just two. Many of the sequences, in which one of these Black actors portrays stereotypical white bigots while wearing a sign around his neck reading “WHITE,” directly reference the Teatro’s famous “actos” which used a similar device when they presented their work to field workers while using flat bed trucks for a stage. The Teatro had to get in and out fast—they were risking arrest and perhaps even their lives by performing in the fields—so they kept things simple, and speedy, and obvious. But always impactful, and most often funny.

The funny is necessary as a defense against despair.

There are dozens of pop cultural references ranging from “The Addams Family” to rap music to “Good Times” (as they arrive in Boston, we hear the theme song “Moving On Up,”) and more. It’s all almost too fast to follow, but it’s fun trying!

The ensemble cast is incredibly good. They perform with passion and purity.

If this is what it means to turn over artistic control to Black artists and other artists of color, well, nobody at all like me could respond with anything other than, “More! More! Give Us More!”

“The Ni¿¿er Lovers” is an incredible breath of fresh air.

I would also add that, just last week, I was fortunate enough to see another wonderful new Black play on Broadway, the Pulitzer prize-winning  smash hit, “Fat Ham.” I hereby state with absolute conviction that “Fat Ham” has nothing on “The Ni¿¿er Lovers,” which is just as deserving of a Broadway run. Don’t be surprised if that happens, and soon.

Lastly, playwright Marc Anthony Thompson assures any who hesitate to pronounce the play’s title that they can follow the advice of his best friend (who happens to be Jewish, not that it matters) and call it “The Negro Admirers.”

I call it brilliant and my advice is call it what you will but for Heaven’s sake, buy a ticket. It’d be a shame not to miss this one.

“The Ni¿¿er Lovers” plays at the Magic Theatre through May 21, 2023. For further information, click here.  

Rating: ***** For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“The Ni¿¿er Lovers” by Marc Anthony Thompson. Produced by Magic Theatre. Co-Directors: Sean San José and Marc Anthony Thompson. Lighting Design: Alejandro Acosta. Props Design: Samantha Alexa. Creative Consultant: Jordan Battle. Music Collaborator: Dougie Brown. Costume Design: Corrida Carr. Production Assistant: Solomon Cosado. Assistant Stage Manager: Daniel Duque-Estrada. Scenic Build: David Gardner. Loid Loid: Scenic Painter. Lauren Quan: Stage Manager. Julius Rea: Assistant Director. Christopher Sauceda: Sound Engineer.

Ensemble: Rotimi Agbabiaka. Tanika Baptiste. Donald L. Lacy, Jr. Aejay Marquis Mitchell. Aidaa Peerzada. 

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