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Emergence-See!

Daniel Beaty's stirring, multi-character solo show paints a vivid portrait of the African-American experience in present-day New York.

Daniel Beaty in Emergence-SEE!
(© Michal Daniel)
An African-American college professor must come to terms with being descended from slaves. In a strange theatrical coincidence, this plotline is the fulcrum of two current Off-Broadway shows: Tanya Barfield's very fine two-actor, multi-character Blue Door at Playwrights Horizons, and Daniel Beaty's stirring one-actor, multi-multi-character Emergence-See!, now ensconced at The Public Theater's rarely used LuEsther Hall.

But even if you've seen Blue Door, the show that Emergence-See! most brings to mind is Sarah Jones' Bridge & Tunnel. In no small part, that's because large chunks of Beaty's work take place at a poetry slam, which is also the setting of Bridge & Tunnel. This is an unsurprising development, since Beaty was the 2004 Grand Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. More pertinently, like Jones, Beaty uses his skills as an actor, poet, and mimic to bring forth a large swath of American culture -- specifically, African-American culture in New York City.

Unquestionably, Beaty is an extraordinarily talented performer -- complete with a gorgeous singing voice -- and his writing displays a complex mind, a very caring heart, and a deep soul. But one wishes he had learned a little lesson from Jones in paring down his work. Trying to play 40 characters in just 75 minutes, even if some are little more than quick snapshots, causes the show to be more diffuse than necessary.

In fact, Emergence-See! might be stronger with a sharper focus on the professor, Reginald Johnson, who ends up on a 17th-century African slave ship that has washed ashore on Liberty Island, causing great commotion throughout the city. Since the murder of his wife many years ago, Reginald's mind has not been all there; this is a source of consternation for his two sons: Rodney, a well-off poet, and Freddy, a gay man who's looking for love in all the wrong places. Reginald has tried to teach his sons not just to rise above the past, but to ignore it completely. The slave ship's captain has come back from long-ago to show Reginald the error of his ways.

Reginald's story, while compelling, is merely a starting-off point for Beaty to paint a broad canvas. Some of the characters he introduces are quite beautifully drawn. Most notable among them are Sharita, the poetry cafe hostess; Anton, a jobless Jamaican who claims to be a rich white man trapped in a black man's body; Ashes, a transgendered prostitute; and Clarissa, a young girl who is HIV-positive. But some of the other characters such as James, a homeless man, seems slightly stale -- and are included, one suspects, mostly to give balance.

Beaty has been blessed with a superb production courtesy of director Kenny Leon, who provides his star with just the right amount of motion to keep the proceedings involving yet not frenetic. Beowulf Borritt has contributed another inventive, spectacular set: a multi-level platform periodically interrupted by large wooden beams. Michael Chybowski's lighting is extremely effective. And Drew Levy's sound design, which can be heard even before the show even begins as the rowing of a ship fills LuEsther Hall, is superb. Reggie Ray is credited with the costume design, although I would have believed that the simple shirt and pants Beaty wears throughout the show -- and which are never accessorized -- might have come from the actor's own closet.

The ship's name, by the way, is Remembrance. How apt. Daniel Beaty is a name to remember, as is this vivid portrait of the African-American experience in present-day New York.

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