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Stage review

‘Emergency’ delves deep with a chorus of characters

Daniel Beaty wrote and starred in “Emergency,” which includes poetry.

Michael Lamont for The Boston Globe

Daniel Beaty wrote and starred in “Emergency,” which includes poetry.

“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.

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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.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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