Theater review: ‘The Magic Negro’ gets at the pain beneath the giggles
Mark Kendall’s new play, “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black,” will be at the Alliance Theatre through April 15. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY
He’s the old black figure, smiling and happy, imbued with timeless wisdom, who helps the white hero get through some extraordinary challenge.
Mark Kendall in his new play, “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black.” “The Magic Negro,” as Kendall explains at the top of his show, is a Hollywood stereotype: the wise old black figure who helps the white hero get through an extraordinary challenge. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY
A Dad’s Garage ensemble member who’s been honing this work since 2014, Kendall is a brilliant writer and performer.
And he sure doesn’t have to look far for his material.
The Braves and MARTA. The Oscar mix-up. Presidential politics. Professional football. These are some of the everyday headlines he co-opts to prove that black people are marginalized and demonized by white America.
“They never see you at all,” he says. “All they see is black.”
Time and time again, the good-natured Kendall pulls a white face from the audience and puts him (or her) through self-awareness exercises that are sharp-edged but never mean-spirited.
On the night I caught the piece, the man chosen to re-enact the timeline of African-American history, starting in a trapdoor doubling as a slave ship, came out alive — even though his Oscar was snatched back.
The “Sam or Larry Show,” ingeniously designed to see if a person can distinguish between Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne, was funny and harmless enough.
Other moments were awkward, painful almost. Take the lady who couldn’t answer a question about Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. “I don’t know who they are,” she said, almost squirming. Hey, I’m not judging. I feel you.
And so does Kendall, who is nothing if not gracious and kind to audience participants.
In one of the best sequences, Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” gets an inspired makeover. Those detested green eggs become a racial epithet.
“Would you say it in your house?” Sam-I-Am asks his friend.
“Would you say it to a mouse?”
Of course, he would. It was there inside him all along.
Comedian Mark Kendall’s new play, “The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black,” makes audiences laugh, but it also leaves them with something to think about. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY
Toward the end of the show, thoughtfully directed by Anthony LeBlanc, Kendall stops his skit, something about Beyonce down on the plantation, before it begins.
He’s been making fun of himself, of black stereotypes and white ignorance, and the audience has been laughing like crazy. His characters have done their job. But the person inside is upset and confused. He feels beaten up.
That he has taken off the mask to confess his vulnerability is a brave, noble thing to do. (Or so it appears. It may in fact be a tad disingenuous. Remember, he's a professional actor. Still, we get the point: All we can see is black.) The emotional cost of portraying a Magic Negro is considerable.
When you leave the theater, you may be tempted to text all your friends: "Man, You've gotta see this! It's so damn good.' "
It is. And you should.
Just keep in mind that laughing is the easy part. Confronting the ugliness beneath the comedy is way harder.
“The Magic Negro and Other Blackity Blackness as Told by an African-American Man Who Also Happens to be Black”
Through April 15. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. $15-$25. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/magicnegro.
Bottom line: Terrific satire. Cuts right through the skin.