The Story Theatre weaves history and “not history” into a brilliant conflation of revolution and the Black experience

Photo by David Hagen

As its name implies, The Story Theatre knows how to tell a story. The young company, only in its third season, has quickly matured (despite the pause necessitated by the pandemic) into something remarkable and original. In its new play, Terry Guest’s impressive Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes, the company tells three stories at once: the (sort of maybe partly accurate but not really) tale of the titular queen and her bloody death, the extrapolation from that of a history of violent revolutions, as well as the story of oppressed people throughout the ages…especially oppressed Black people. And it is the second brilliantly creative exploration of the Black experience that I have seen this summer, the other being Victory Gardens’ production of cullud wattuh. But whereas that play focuses entirely on the Flint water crisis, The Story’s production manages to encompass significant events from the last three centuries…and its “magical negroes,” a complete invention of course, morph again and again to take us on the journey.

As the audience enters the theatre to a combination of jazz—an authentically “free” Black musical form—and (barely audible) news stories pertaining to important recent events in Black history (courtesy of sound designer Andrew Littleton and composer Willow James), we are already being primed for the show ahead. The huge “This Is Not History” sign emblazoned on the wall near the stage stands as a constant reminder that we aren’t going to be watching a true story but rather one cobbled together from many parts, some real and some fictional and most a combination of the two. Guest’s script does an excellent job of handling its multiple throughlines, and whenever he needs us to understand that a certain section is indeed historically accurate, someone negates the giant sign by stating, “This is history.” The sign is accurate, though, most of the time: the script, for example, takes unsubstantiated rumors about the Queen—mostly from the contemporaneous French tabloids (called libelles), which were full of untrue stories and art of political pornography—as if they were true. (Affairs with many of her courtiers, as well as a lesbian affair with the Princess Lamballe, are very unlikely to have actually occurred.)

For all of that, though, perhaps Guest’s greatest accomplishment here is in creating a cohesive story from such disparate parts while maintaining a separation of the somewhat historical characters, the outside characters that the actors play, with names like “Jim Crow” and “Sambo,” who are presenting this to us, and the actual actors who are playing all of this, who appear toward the end. It’s an impressive balancing act, and Guest, who also directs, makes it look easy…as do his actors.

The five Black actors charged with making all of this happen are Keith Illidge, whose main character in the “not history” is Axel von Fersen, one of Marie’s alleged paramours; Amber Washington, who plays Anne, the head Lady in Waiting, and Ida B. Wells—yep, that Ida B. Wells—among other characters; Danyelle Monson, who portrays the Queen’s most loyal lady in waiting, Catherine; Maya Venice Prentiss, whose “Charlotte” character eagerly joins the revolt of the third estate that takes place within the palace walls; and Nathaniel Andrew, who takes on many roles including that of a 21st-Century-style newscaster offering stories about the ongoing revolution.

Joining these performers onstage are Brenna DiStasio, who plays Marie Antoinette at multiple ages and stages of her life, and David Stobbe, whose Louis LVI is so effete and so reminiscent of Hamilton‘s King Charles that I half expected him to break into “I’ll Be Back.” The relationship between these two is shown (accurately) as distant and mostly nonsexual. (Marie had four children, all of whom historians believe were legitimate, but who knows?) Here, Stobbe’s Louis is far more interested in living up to his father’s legacy than in creating one of his own—dude has major daddy issues—and DiStasio’s Marie’s disconnect from anything other than her love of her children is seen in her nearly constant day-drinking. Even in the lone extended scene between them, when they are imprisoned together, they remain true to their emotional cores: Marie, stronger than ever, is determined to save France by any means possible in order to save her children, while Louis insists that there are limits to what he will do, for fear of risking the entire monarchy. It’s a great scene.

All of these performers are up to the challenges created by the complexity of Guest’s script. The “Magical Negroes” transform fluidly from narrators to characters to rioting peasants to malevolent portents of the ugliness to come to random historical figures, both Black and White. The first one we see is Illidge’s JFK, presented, we are told, “exactly as you remembered him,” whose opening line, “What will it take to break America?” seems sadly far too easy to answer these days. Some are famous, like JFK and Wells, and some are not, like Andrew’s dark and emotional turn as a teenager caught up in the violence of Ferguson, Mo.

The horrors that Black people have had thrust upon them by history conflate with the French Revolution’s violent response to the monarchy’s excesses. We even see Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the other major revolution against France (in Haiti) through Monson’s brief portrayal. The steep contrast between her sweet Catherine and the violent Louverture (who tells us, “I repeated all of the torture techniques I had learned growing up on the sugar plantations,” is actually shocking, but it illustrates what this show demands of its cast. They also bang drums (boxes, anyway) and ominously and violently move across the stage to encircle the King and Queen like spirits out for their blood—the play’s script has several calls for “bloodthirsty screams”—among other things. (Monson’s later portrayal of a Black woman turning to her ancestors—whom she doesn’t even think she believes in—for vengeance in the George Floyd murder is further evidence of this actor’s power and the play’s complexity.) Credit choreographer Ayanna Bria Bakari and violence designer Thomas Russell for the unnerving action and movement.

Ultimately, it comes down to Prentiss who, somehow channeling both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X—who knew that was even possible?—and even echoing Obama’s ubiquitous “Yes we can,” urges the French—and all Black people throughout history—to keep fighting even if they seem to have won. (If recent events in this country have proved anything at all, it is that nothing is ever permanently won and all freedoms, no matter the price paid for them, can be stripped away.) To prove that, she appears as Napoleon, “exactly as you remembered him,” who reminds us that all revolutionaries tire of the fight eventually.

Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes is one of those plays that I am positive will stick with me for a long time. Throughout the 48 hours since I saw it, I have been unable to get its haunting images and messages out of my mind. It may not be accurate as “history,” and it doesn’t try to be, but its conflation of so many different struggles—over and over again—for liberty may just make it the most perfect and important understanding of the connections among all revolutionaries that has ever been attempted. And that, not any form of accuracy in depicting specific events, is The Story.

Tickets for the play, which runs through July 17, can be obtained through Raven Theatre.

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