It was an act of daring for playwright Inda Craig-Galván to blend tragedy, comic-book fantasy, and blistering media satire in “Black Super Hero Magic Mama.’’
Apart from the dramaturgical juggling act required, would the impact of the wrenching event at the play’s center — the police killing of a 14-year-old Black youth — be diluted by the merger of those disparate forms?
The answer proves to be an emphatic no.
The ineradicable ache of a mother’s loss comes through with devastating force in “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” skillfully directed by Monica White Ndounou at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall. So, too, does the playwright’s anger at the cultural conditions that allow such losses to keep happening — and the way they’re often slotted into a neatly prefabricated narrative by the media.
The emotional fulcrum of “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” is Ramona Lisa Alexander’s deeply felt portrayal of Sabrina Jackson, a strict but loving mother in Chicago. What makes Alexander’s powerful performance even more impressive is that this consistently fine actress has immersed herself in such a challenging role so soon after wrapping up work in Huntington Theatre Company’s “The Bluest Eye.”
In “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” Alexander never lets us lose sight of Sabrina’s agony after her world is blown apart, even when the mother’s grief propels her into the realm of superhero fantasy. The persona Sabrina assumes in that realm is that of the red-costumed, swashbuckling Maasai Angel, a comic-book heroine who is the brainchild of Sabrina’s gifted son, Tramarion (an excellent Joshua Robinson) and his wisecracking friend, Joseph (Anderson Stinson III, very good).
“Black Super Hero Magic Mama” represents a heartening return to live performance for Company One Theatre after more than two years, because of the pandemic. Company One is presenting the play in collaboration with Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, the BPL, and the Boston Comics in Color Festival.
One of the festival’s founders, Cagen Luse, designed and drew the vibrant representations of the comic-book characters that are displayed on large upstage panels. Luse’s truly exceptional work is abetted by projection designer Maria Servellón, and sound designer Anna Drummond also does an exemplary job establishing different moods, from foreboding stillness to battle-ready noisiness.
Tramarion envisioned the Maasai Angel as a champion for the underdog, “the voice of the voiceless,” but his own vital voice is stilled forever after a fatal encounter with a police officer. It occurs in a parking lot after Tramarion has won a high school Black history quiz show. The team’s coach (Ricardo Engermann), having inadvertently left his keys in his locked car, is using a wire hanger to get into the car. When the officer (Dustin Teuber) mistakes Tramarion’s trophy for a weapon, what happens next is grimly predictable.
Shattered and virtually immobilized by the death of her beloved child, Sabrina retreats into silence, to the alarm of her sister, Lena (Ashley Rose). Meanwhile, Sabrina’s refusal to play her assigned public role mystifies a local TV anchor (Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson) and reporter (Stewart Evan Smith). Satire doesn’t come much more lacerating than the scene when the anchor informs viewers that Sabrina has not shown up for “the traditional post-unarmed-Black-person-shooting-death press conference,” and the equally puzzled reporter notes the deviation from the usual timetable: “the shooting, followed by the first wave of protests, the acquittal, more protests, and then the next shooting of an unarmed Black Person.”
Sabrina has other ideas. Once she morphs into the Maasai Angel, her goal is to find and confront “The Entity,” take her revenge, and “get back what’s mine.”
On Saturday night, when a robust fight scene between the Maasai Angel and her antagonist resulted in damage to an onstage bed, the crew responded with alacrity, and the cast got back into the flow pretty smoothly after a break of 10 minutes or so. Apart from such mishaps, there is occasionally a bit of choppiness to the rhythms of “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” because of its tonal shifts.
But it’s not anything that slows the onrushing momentum or diminishes what ultimately makes Craig-Galván’s play so moving: its twin reminders that motherhood is a kind of superpower and that sometimes, tragically, even that is not enough.
BLACK SUPER HERO MAGIC MAMA
Play by Inda Craig-Galván
Directed by Monica White Ndounou
Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with American Repertory Theater, Boston Public Library, and Boston Comics in Color Festival. At Rabb Hall, Boston Public Library. Through May 21. Tickets are “pay what you want.” www.companyone.org; for questions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org