AMERICA v. 2.1 – Barrington Stage Company
Stacey Rose’s “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise and The Eventual Extinction of the American Negro” is set in some dystopian, white propaganda theme park (or convention center or such) where four enslaved African Americans perform a minstrel-style, industrial show that instructs white audiences how Blacks themselves, not Whites and their racism, killed civil rights and annihilated Blacks.
The opening number, cleverly choreographed with a nod to Kander and Ebb's "The Scottsboro Boys” and wink to Fosse’s “Cabaret”, gives way to four skits of revisionist African American history roughly divided into slavery, emancipation/ reconstruction, civil rights and the modern era. After Jesus Christ Lincoln, the historical figures that appear are imaginary hybrids of pro- and anti-civil rights, white and black are King Dr. Martin Jesse Jackson, William Clanton Bosby (Clinton and Cosby), Donald Reagan (guess which Donald) and Baracka Saddam Osama. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.
Playwright Rose’s view, authentic and passionate though it be, is so relentlessly angry and uniformly cynical the satire gets suffocated. Actor Ansa Aye, who plays leader of the troupe, breaths some relief into the intermissionless 90 minutes with amusing interpretations of Reagan, Clinton and Obama. But Rose seems so focused on her own personal views of Black history that politics gets in the way of character, even in the face of real tragedy that faces some of the troupe.
There’s a new crop of talented African American writers who are plumbing the legacy of US racism to create vital character-driven works: Jeremy O. O’Hara (“Slave Play”), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”), Aziza Barnes (“BLKS”), and Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”) to name just a few. Their stories transact effectively on the basis of empathy for their characters. In “America v. 2.1” it seems like characters are merely vessels of the playwright’s political axe to grind, no matter how legitimate.
Huge credit goes to Barrington Stage Company for nurturing playwrights like Rose, providing a platform for their voices, and conducting community outreach and presenting talkbacks (after every evening performance in the case of “America v 2.1”), especially on the topic of racism today. That’s all good. But as a piece of drama, “America v 2.1” isn’t.