Visually scintillating, musically varied and appealing, animated by the shamanic, shape-shifting energy of its griot/narrator, “AmericanMYTH: Crossroads” has a hell of a lot going for it, not least the abundant heart and spirit of its writer-director, Jerrell Henderson. He’s created a musical shadow puppet play that takes on the biggest, most challenging questions of American—and especially (but by no means exclusively) African American—identity. In the end, the Philadelphia-bred, Northwestern-trained playwright’s reach exceeds his grasp, and the work fails to fully come together. But during its hour-long running time, “AmericanMYTH” brings to bear a great deal of emotional and poetic content. Even in its not-quite-finished form, it constitutes a miniature epic built around the American quest for elusive, deep-down truth that maybe, just maybe, could bring some much-needed healing.
At the center of this ambitious, imaginative show is Marcellus Burt’s Vocalist, the myth-spinning MC. His job is to translate the narrative’s sometimes harrowing events—including the horrors of the Middle Passage, antebellum slavery and post-bellum racial terror, as well as episodes of resilience and courage on the part of both Blacks and whites—into poignant, soulful music, in many different forms. It’s a draining, demanding part, but Burt rises to the occasion, going beyond acting to something more like testifying. Through sheer force of personality, he commands the small stage at the Pulaski Fieldhouse in Noble Square.
As fine as the Vocalist is, our attention is drawn to the superb shadow-puppet work done by the gifted quartet of Jo Schaffer, Darius Stubbs, Jacqueline Wade-George and Lexy Weixel. Projected against three movable screens, the low-tech, high-touch shadow puppets, with their wavy, dreamlike movements, come to us like archetypes out of the collective unconscious. Two-sided character masks alternate with pulsingly alive constructions and projections, including a rhythmic, drifting flow of musical notes and a cut-out double helix, symbolizing the hidden, permanent but mutable cultural code underlying social relations. There are moments when the puppetry here verges on pure theater magic, offering us the kind of intimate, unmediated and entrancing experience that no other art form can produce.
No review would be complete without a shout-out to the puppet-mask-costume-projection design team of Rocio “Chio” Cabrera, Jacqueline Wade-George, Nina Castillo D’Angier and Gregory Graham, who confirm Chicago’s reputation as a vital center of the puppetry arts. Equally worthy of praise is accompanist Fred Jackson, Jr., who serves here as a one-man, multi-genre band, perfectly attuned to the Vocalist’s moods as he segues from jazz to show tunes to hip-hop to gospel to rock ‘n’ roll.
But it must be said: The fact that the play’s separate elements are so enthralling makes its structural lapses all the more frustrating. The opening scenes are heavy with exposition as the Vocalist explains to us—at length and repeatedly—that myth, language, history, ideas and action are all intertwined and overlapping, conditioning one another and driving progress. But how does this process work, in concrete terms? By the show’s end, we still have little idea exactly what the playwright means by myth, or what sort of historical truth and redemptive action we should be moving toward. As is always the case with theater, less telling and describing, and more showing and enacting, would have brought home the point better and also pulled us more deeply into the action.
This is especially true of the story of Maisie and Howard, a Black couple who must negotiate both their (very circumscribed) freedom and their troubled relationship following the Civil War. Their tale, the narrative centerpiece of “AmericanMYTH” is complex and engaging—but it never melds with what comes before or after, or achieves a satisfying resolution, one that’s relevant to our own time. “Everyone makes peace with not being the worst version of themselves,” says the Vocalist, summing up the hard-driving but selfish character of Howard. This may be true, but it’s hardly inspiring and makes for an anticlimactic moral to the story.
At one point, the Vocalist sings a melancholically introspective song, wondering “Why, when I look inside… there’s always something missing.” We never really find out what that missing thing is, although there are hints that it’s our own fragmented, incomplete awareness of ourselves.
“AmericanMYTH” suffers from its own fragmentation. All the pieces are there; what’s lacking is the willingness to put them all together in a coherent way and to communicate a unified and compelling message to the audience. This play, so promising in this early iteration, is at its own crossroads, requiring the playwright to take a hard look at his work so far and decide exactly what he really wants and needs to focus on. I wish him and his talented team success. Even in its present form, the play dazzles; once it fully ripens, it will also illuminate.
“AmericanMYTH: Crossroads” at Free Street Theater at Pulaski Park, 1419 West Blackhawk, (773)772-7248, freestreet.org. Pay what you can. Through November 11.