The Journey of Self-Discovery Can Be to Anywhere
A point that might be easy to miss when it comes up is when one of the characters in the Amsterdam sequence asks Our Hero (Daniel Breaker) some question that implies that all Americans are alike, and he asks if the character lives in a windmill and wears wooden shoes. The fact is, he spends a certain amount of time trying to cash in on various Europeans' expectations that all black Americans have the same experience. Which does come up again; as the narrator (co-creator Stew) points out, no one in the entire play knows what it's like to hustle dimes on the streets of South Central. (In fact, despite what Wikipedia says, I don't think Our Hero is even [i]from[/i] South Central. I'm pretty sure he's said to live north of I-10, which doesn't go through South Central!) However, because the suburban experience of American blacks isn't as familiar to most of the world, he gets to coast on being thought to have grown up poor and oppressed.
When he is still living at home, his oppression mainly consists of his mother (Eisa Davis) forcing him to go to church with her. He ends up joining the youth choir, because there's a girl he likes (De'Adre Aziza). Only the youth choir doesn't really work for him, and he forms a prog rock band with a different girl (Rebecca Naomi Jones). To be more real, you see. And then, he decides that the way to be real is to move to Europe. First, he goes to Amsterdam, where he meets a group of artists with whom he fits in perfectly. Including a girl (De'Adre Aziza again), of course. Only Amsterdam is too perfect, and he can't create there. So he goes to Berlin, where he falls in with a different group of artists. Including, yes, a girl (Rebecca Naomi Jones again). But no matter where he goes, he is still himself, and he is still pursued by the past, including the person his mother expects him to be whether he is or not.
I don't pretend to know everything about the black experience in America. (I leave that for Spike Lee, who supervised the filming.) However, it seems to me that the Youth's experiences are part of the black experience I know the most about. (That isn't just my own desperate desire to leave LA forever and come back as seldom as possible!) While he seems to have grown up in the city proper, he certainly didn't seem to have grown up in the 'hood. I knew people who went to the kind of church he did. (I didn't; we were Catholic, and our church was multiethnic, not black.) The thing is, though, even when you grow up in what I've taken to referring to as "the outer city," you have a certain amount of experience with the inner city. It's on the local news all the time, and you go through it to get places you're going. And, sometimes, there's enough social mobility so that you know someone who'd lived there. In short, you know enough to pass, should that be convenient.
Heck, when you get far enough away, other people do your passing for you. Given that I'm white and from the suburbs, and given that I moved here in '95, a lot of people I knew assumed that my life was exactly like [i]Clueless[/i], or anyway enough so that it was all they needed to know. It's frustrating, but in some ways, it's also kind of comforting. Our Hero knows that his life wasn't really like a blaxploitation film, but he also knows that he can coast on that belief. He isn't as obsessively political as his German friends, but he can top whatever they have to say by pointing out what "they already know" about the oppression he suffered. (Note that I'm not saying that his life wasn't harder because he was black, just that it wasn't as hard as he made it out to be.) It's easy to hide in it, and that's what the Youth is doing. They don't have to know that he came to Europe to get away from the completely different oppression that is living in a middle-class neighbourhood.
I'm seriously tired of bare-stage musicals, but I don't dislike this one. For one thing, there are musicians. Bare-stage musicals wherein the cast also has to play all the instruments don't work on a variety of levels, but this doesn't have that problem. Most of the cast is playing a variety of characters, but they're all distinct, and that's all the actors have to do. Every once in a while, someone--either the Narrator or the Youth, generally--picks up a guitar, but they are mostly allowed to get on with acting, and picking up of instruments is completely in character. It's not like that production of [i]Company[/i] where someone is supposed to be singing and accompanying themselves on the trumpet at the same time. There is also clever use of lighting to make the distinctions between Amsterdam and Berlin. And, of course, this seems to have been designed as bare-stage from the start, so any tricks to make it work were planned into it. I think that makes quite a difference as well.