“Emergency” is a fascinating performance hybrid that combines elements of storytelling, singing, poetry, preaching, and stand-up comedy with a charming theatricality.
In a whirlwind 75 minutes at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, writer and performer Daniel Beaty offers more than a dozen distinctly different characters, who, even in their briefest appearances, are recognizable and real. Even though he works with African-American stereotypes — a grandma, a swishy queen, a preteen with attitude, her earnest boyfriend who sings with the Harlem Boys Choir, and many others — Beaty burrows into their hearts, and ours, with his direct, unadorned honesty.
The theatrical framework for “Emergency” is the appearance of a centuries-old slave ship, which has mysteriously resurfaced in the Hudson River in full view of the Statue of Liberty. As the TV cameras descend on the scene, Rodney, a finalist on “America’s Next Top Poet,” learns that his father has somehow climbed aboard. Rodney and his brother, Freddie, a gay man who prefers to flirt with the handsome Jamaican he met in the park, must go and rescue their father, a man who is so shattered by the murder of his wife that his mind, his son says, takes him to a place his heart can handle.
As Rodney and Freddie scramble to get to their father, we learn that the appearance of the slave ship — tangible evidence of that horrifying chapter in American history — stokes the fires of a barely suppressed rage, or “post-traumatic slave syndrome” as Beaty’s “slave-ologist” calls it. Beaty’s lens also captures a contemporary African-American experience that includes a homeless man’s vivid memory of his mother’s pound cake recipe as a symbol of love and belonging; a woman’s determination to give her grandchildren a sense of their past as a door into their future; a broken-hearted husband’s acceptance of loss; a child’s surprise when she forgets she’s black, but someone else, she says, always remembers. The slave ship, we learn, is called “Remembrance,” and Beaty’s not-so-subtle point revolves around the need for all Americans to come to terms with the legacy of slavery to find ways to heal and hope for the future.
Beaty is a masterful poet and he brings the narrative around again and again to the slam competition, treating us to some goosebump-inducing poems that build to anthem-like crescendos. He is also a phenomenal singer, whose range and power plumbed unexpected emotional depths.
While “Emergency’s” message occasionally feels a bit heavy-handed, Beaty’s tour de force performance is not to be missed.