These days, the latest battleground of the culture wars in our country is the history classroom. Who gets to choose what story of America’s history is told? And while Definition Theatre Company’s production of Stacey Rose’s America v 2.1 doesn’t let on who got to choose in the story’s dystopian future, it is clear which story won out. With repeated reverence to the “Almighty Founding Fathers,” by the four African American troupe members tasked with telling the story for our continued education, we are taken through the history of “The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro.” This well-produced virtual performance grabbed my interest from the troupe’s first warm-up through the last intense moments of the story that ends in a time that seems not that far away from now. Between each of the four parts of the story performed for an audience that has been asked to “leave their guns on safety throughout the performance unless absolutely needed,” we glimpse the actors backstage, being commanded by a voice that seems right out of George Orwell’s 1984. Was the voice (Carly Cornelius) talking to me when we were told to put down our pens and paper and stop taking notes? Throughout, we are left to wonder, when are we? And how did America get here? And frighteningly, is it really that far off?
Rose’s script is brilliant as it presents the troupe’s tale of the demise of the American negro, weaving in every historical black stereotype encountered in American history to both show us, as the audience of the play, how absurd this version of the story is but also placing the characters within the play in uncomfortable positions as they recite lines glorifying the slave trade, the slave system and the racial oppression that followed through Reconstruction and post-Civil Rights era. From the opening minstrelesque song which immediately made me uncomfortable as I watched these African American performers sing and dance as white performers in blackface once did, to the Uncle Tom archetype, relating the kindness of the slave owners in a Gone with the Wind mammy accent, to the more modern character performing a “hippity hop” song, I was slapped in the face over and over again with racist tropes that have stripped African Americans of their humanity throughout history. These moments are not lost on the four ensemble members, either, as they must reckon sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly with the consequences of the paternalistic story they are being forced to tell to the audience every day. When Victor Musoni’s Grant is deep in his Uncle Tom glorification of the slave system and disdain at the people who want to destroy it, his pause and pained look to the audience captivated me. In this dystopian future, as in the actual, truthful past, these African American troupe members are being forced to perform for a white audience and to hide their true selves for their survival. In between the story scenes, we learn that these troupe members are prisoners, forced to perform this story in order to earn a meager existence with punishment doled out for misbehavior.
The strength of this show comes not only from Rose’s vision of this dystopian future and magnificent storytelling but also from the cohesion of the ensemble members. It is clear as the play moves on, they have their reasons for being a part of this troupe and by the end, there are so many more things I wish I knew about their character’s stories. I have already mentioned Musoni’s Grant, played perfectly as the young naive troupe member trying to understand his place. His naivete is contrasted by Kenneth D. Johnson’s Donovan, the troupe leader trying to hold his actors together because he understands his role and the importance of this job for his troupe. Or does he, we wonder, as we slowly watch Johnson’s Donovan begin to question what he is doing. Martasia Jones as Leah and Bernard Gilbert as Jeffrey share with us characters of great strength who are pulled in different directions by that strength. As I watched the show, I admired the tightness of the actual ensemble, even as the fictional troupe was falling apart. These four actors’ ability to seamlessly move from scene to scene both within the story in the story and in the dystopian future made the show powerful. At times I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the story while also being haunted by the characters’ torment.
Like many things over the last 20 months, theater has learned to adapt to the pandemic. Definition Theatre’s production of America v 2.1 is only available virtually. This was not the first virtual performance I have seen over the last year but it is the best. The play was performed and filmed on a stage with an amazing yet simple set. I was awed by each of set designer Yu Shibagaki’s backdrops throughout the troupe’s performance of the stories. There were many and each one, in stark black and white tones, reinforced the misery of the story true American historians know but also the misery these actors are being forced into through this disgusting retelling of that truth. In between, the scenes of the backstage area helped convey a 1984esque dystopian reality. One benefit of the virtual performance is that the audience can be even more intimate with the actors, as we could get close-ups, enhanced with the great lighting designed by Jason Lynch which one may not always be able to see depending on one’s seat in the theatre. Despite the virtual nature of the show, I was as drawn in as I would be if I was watching it live. Of course, the main thing a virtual performance is lacking is the very reason we go to the theater- the communal experience with our fellow audience members. While I did enjoy the performance with my son, I wondered what it would feel like to experience this show with a crowd. How would we feel when we laughed at a funny yet uncomfortable moment together such as the speech Jesus Christ Lincoln gives as he is dying? What would the moments of disgust at America’s past and present treatment of African Americans feel like with people all around me? Of course, I am grateful that theater companies like Definition have found ways to bring high-quality performances to audiences safely.
Definition Theatre is currently in the process of building a new theater and community center in Woodlawn. If America v 2.1 is any indication of the art that will be created in this new space, I cannot wait to see what they will be doing there. In the meantime, for anyone concerned about the current culture war, get a ticket to this show. You have no excuse- you can watch it any time, anywhere for the next few weeks. Your education depends on it.
America v 2.1 is now streaming through November 21st. Purchase a ticket or access to a watch party with a Q and A with a member of the production staff at Definition Theatre.