The premise seems, at first, way too on-the-nose.
A slave ship suddenly surfaces in present-day New York Harbor. Right in front of the Statue of Liberty. “Slave-ologists” call it the Remembrance.
But “Emergency,” Daniel Beaty’s one-man show playing next weekend at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the ArtsEmerson banner, isn’t as blunt an instrument as that makes it sound. Cross-cutting rapidly among two dozen characters, Beaty creates an often comic cross section of 21st-century African-American life while digging deep into one family’s tragedy.
“People have been so bold as to say we are in a post-racial America, which personally I think is absurd,” Beaty says by phone from New York, where he lives. “Certainly there has been tremendous progress and healing, but across races and across differences, there are many conversations that we are still terrified to have and don’t have the tools to have as a nation.”
The play’s first voice is a reporter announcing the startling development in the harbor. Others follow quickly: a profane homeless man; a religious grandmother who understands the slave ship to be a sign from God; a transsexual who mistakes it for a new Carnival Cruise; an academic expert in “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”; and a group calling themselves the Pissed Off Negroes, who plan to shoot anyone who tries to remove the ship.
Inhabiting them all, Beaty takes his place in a long line of comic chameleons he cites as influences, including Lily Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg.
“I was taught early on that observation is the artist’s great tool,” says Beaty, who won a 2007 Obie Award for the original New York production, when the show was called “Emergence-SEE!” “So, much of my life is spent listening and observing and researching. I don’t necessarily do a direct transcription of what I’ve heard. I’m more about getting everything I’ve perceived to wash over and through me, so when it comes time to create an artistic work, there’s a lot of information there.”
The heart of the play belongs to brothers Rodney and Freddie and their father, Reginald. Rodney is about to appear as a finalist on the TV show “America’s Next Top Poet!” But then Freddie, “a big old queen” with his own problems, calls to tell him that their troubled father, a onetime Shakespearean scholar, has climbed onto the slave ship. Just what damaged Reginald’s spirit, what he sees on the ship, and what Rodney has to say when he finally gets on TV are intended to take this play beyond satire.
Beaty readily admits that his many transformations onstage are not just an artistic strategy, and that he knows a little something about family tragedies.
“I have a lot of voices in my head,” he says, noting with a laugh that people occasionally ask in post-show discussions if he’s schizophrenic. “I came from some very difficult experiences growing up. A father who was a heroin addict and arrested some 58 times. A brother 10 years older who was addicted to crack cocaine and in and out of prison. And I had a lot of years of sadness about my own self-concept and who I could be. And I would escape into my own internal world, and my love of words and characters got me through.”
Beaty has spent the season as an ArtsEmerson resident artist, performing various pieces and often meeting with members of the community, talking of turning pain into power.
“He has the ability to take his own life experiences and share them through his creative expression in a way that can heal others,” says ArtsEmerson executive director Robert J. Orchard. “We respect him so much on a simply aesthetic level, but we are also eager to have him and his great gifts as an activist in the community. We would love to take this year and build upon it.”
Next season, ArtsEmerson will likely produce one of several works Beaty has in the creative pipeline, and perhaps offer another in a workshop format, Orchard says. And Beaty says he’s going to be part of a larger ArtsEmerson project about Boston’s 1970s busing crisis, a season or two in the future.
“We’re not ready to announce anything,” Orchard says, “but it’s an ambitious project, and we want to have [Beaty] and many others involved.”
Beaty notes he has traveled widely for his work, “and what I can say honestly is that many cities have stories of unhealed racial tensions or a situation or a moment that happened that was so traumatic for people, across lines of difference, that the best thing that could happen at that moment was to get through it. Even though the overall landscape of race in a city may have changed, there are wounds that have still not healed. That is true of many cities that I have been to, and that is also true of Boston as it pertains to busing.”
Beaty says he’s already started his research and hopes “to create a dramatic work that chronicles the experience, but also creates some healing around what that moment was.”
Romeo, Juliet, Henry, et al.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project will kick off its 10th season with “Romeo and Juliet” Oct. 2-Nov. 3 at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, where the company staged “Hamlet” in 2006. Bobbie Steinbach and artistic director Allyn Burrows will co-direct. Tina Packer will stage the second production in the lineup, “Henry VIII,” at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, Dec. 11-Jan. 5, 2014. At venues to be announced later, Melia Bensussen will direct Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Feb. 14-March 9, 2014, and Robert Walsh will direct “As You Like It,” April 16-May 18, 2014.
The company has put actress-director Paula Plum and Emerson College associate professor Sarah Hickler in charge of “What’s in a Name,” a “Romeo and Juliet”-related community outreach program that will result in public performances. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, has invited “What’s in a Name” to travel to the United Kingdom in June 2014 for performances at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust sites, the company said.