Writer: Nia O. Witherspoon
Director: Nia O. Witherspoon
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
During the Stonewall Riots in 1969, one of the individuals in the vanguard that pushed back against police harassment was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender activist. Johnson is among the most recognized of the Stonewall protesters; some accounts credit her with throwing the first brick. With that in mind, it seems appropriate that La MaMa E.T.C. kicks off its Stonewall at 50 programming with Messiah, written and directed by Nia O. Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s play explores the intersection of queer identity, activism, Black history, and violence against Black and queer bodies.
Messiah examines the life of a trans DJ named Messiah. Every time his record scratches, we jump backward or forward in time and learn something else about his tumultuous history. Messiah was once Malika, the teenage child of Black Panther Party members, a survivor of the police bombing of MOVE’s West Philadelphia row houses, and a confused young person working hard to prove his manhood in a world still reeling from the crack epidemic. When Messiah’s estranged father Curtis walks into the club where he works, Messiah’s girlfriend Basimah’s interest is piqued; she starts researching the history of the club and the neighborhood. Painful memories bubble to the surface as she digs deeper, learning about the club’s history as a space for queer and transgender performers of color, in particular a trans woman named Maybelline who has a connection with Messiah’s family. We learn about violence from Messiah’s own past—violence to which he was victim and violence that he perpetrated. We also see the confusion of his childhood as his parents struggle with their own demons.
The play is staged in La MaMa’s downstairs space, which set designer You-Shin Chen has transformed into the club where Messiah works, with a DJ booth at one end of the room, a stage space at the other, and a runway in between. Seating is on either side of the runway, but without risers, folks in the second and third rows may have difficulty seeing some of the action staged on the runway. The show features strong, moving performances from the ensemble cast of Rowin Amone, Sol de la Ciudad, Marie-Louise Guiner, Jiggy Jada, Shaa Kettrles, Malik Reed, Rodrikus Damon Springfield, Ianne Fields Stewart, Sharlee Taylor, and Deshawn Wyatte. Lighting and production design, by Tuce Yasak and Kameron Neal, respectively, go a long way in transporting us throughout time and space. The show does feature strobe lights and fog effects.
Witherspoon examines a variety of issues and events relevant specifically to the Black LGBTQ community; as the La MaMa website states “Messiah ponders how black nationalism, despite its legacies of sexism and homophobia can live on in contemporary black queer and female bodies.” Black history and queer history are both widely forgotten and misrepresented, so it stands to reason that the history of people who are both Black and queer isn’t featured in mainstream education. Because there’s so much ground to cover, parts of Messiah can feel unfocused. Some moments feel rushed, while others seem extraneous, even though all of the history the show references is relevant and connected. With a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, there’s the sense that that show would benefit from either trimming or expanding into two parts. The latter of these seems like the wiser option, because the language and imagery are beautiful throughout the play. It seems a shame to lose any of Witherspoon’s rich and poetic dialogue. Although the long running time may seem daunting, Messiah tells an important story, confronting history that’s been forgotten or ignored by white, straight, middle-class America.
Runs until 2 June 2019 | Photo credit: Rand Rosenberg