The 1931 Afrofuturist novel from which the new musical “Black No More” takes its name is hardly subtle, starting with its subtitle: “Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940.” George S. Schuyler’s satire is basically a thought experiment in which a procedure that decolorizes Black people solves America’s race problem but creates a new one when there’s no one left for haters to hate.
The New Group’s musical version, which opened on Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, makes the smart decision to borrow only the novel’s rudiments. It dumps most of the silly names (Ezekiel Whooper, Rufus Kretin), thin caricatures (of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, among others) and weirdly jovial tone in favor of a more serious look at internalized racism and the conundrums of assimilation.
The result, directed by Scott Elliott, is a gorgeous mess. Though it forefronts Schuyler’s central question — Is the goal of racial progress the ennoblement of Blackness or its disappearance into a “chromatic democracy”? — its tone is jumpy and its storytelling lumpy. The book by John Ridley, who wrote “12 Years a Slave,” makes only halfway repairs to the original, while introducing new problems that music and dance can’t solve.
But oh, what music and dance! That the score is the work of many hands — lyrics by Tariq Trotter of the Roots; music by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters — seems to have been an advantage here, helping to establish the show’s various moods and personalities.
With nods to Kurt Weill, “Hamilton,” hip-hop, gospel, jazz, spoken word and Tin Pan Alley, among other aptly diverse inspirations and traditions, the songs reveal the characters’ yearnings and aversions, which often amount to the same thing. As well, under Waters’s musical supervision, they offer plenty of opportunities for phenomenal singing from the cast of 26, accompanied by a terrific band of seven.
The choreography, by Bill T. Jones, is likewise thrilling, sometimes illustrating specific ideas (like the differences between Black and white social dancing) and other times expressing the overall conflict between racial pride and frustration. Because that conflict remains unresolved in the story, Jones often declines to resolve it in movement; numbers build from tension to frenzy without the overfamiliar Broadway-style climax.
But the sung and danced elements of “Black No More” prove too exciting for its wobbly book to support. Making the inventor of the decolorizing process the narrator — his name, alas, is Dr. Junius Crookman — immediately sets the story on a strange footing; a neutral figure in the novel, he is here an amoral villain, and in Trotter’s uneven performance (excellent with the rapping, stiff with the acting) a bit too Dr. Evil. This immediately sidelines the actual central character, Max Disher, creating a blurry focus from which the show never fully recovers.
Still, by the time Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon) becomes Crookman’s first patient, submitting to what looks like a dental procedure, “Black No More” has efficiently set up his reasons for choosing whiteness. Though he enjoys the “sporting life” he leads in Harlem, his safety there from the stings of overt racism comes at a cost. In “I Want It All,” his introductory song, he explains that he is never a whole man within his community’s confines, but merely “three-fifths” of one.
For others, though, Harlem is “heaven’s gate” and “the Mecca of the Black race.” Disher’s best friend — a man named Bunny in the novel but here a woman named Buni — can’t understand why anyone would leave a place “where a person knows what they’re in for.” (Buni is played by Tamika Lawrence, a stunning singer.) For Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes), a character new to the story, Disher is simply a traitor, selling out the dream of Black excellence.
Both are especially unimpressed by Disher’s baser motivations: to make more money in a more exciting career (he’s an insurance salesman) and to hook up with the white woman from Atlanta he falls in love with one night in a club.
That woman, Helen Givens — played by Jennifer Damiano in a Veronica Lake wig — is the musical’s most radically revamped character; she is much more complicated than the unreconstructed racist of the novel. Unfortunately, in their attempt to give her greater agency, the musical’s authors make her motives and choices almost incoherent.
As the story begins to pile on plot — it feels too hasty even at a long two hours and 30 minutes — the problem spreads to everyone else. Especially after Disher and Givens marry in Georgia, and a baby of likely mixed race impends, the musical pushes too hard toward tragedy, winding up well short at melodrama.
And yet, melodrama can be effective, especially when sung; the “melo” part of the word, after all, means music. Except for Sykes, who gets a great gospel number (“Lord Willing if the Creek Don’t Rise”), the women are more successful than the men at pushing past the confusions of the plot. (Dixon, usually a riveting performer, seems strangely recessive here.) And do not ask why Madame Sisseretta Blandish, the beauty impresario modeled on Madam C.J. Walker, sings not only in her salon but also in a nightclub; when it’s Lillias White doing the singing, who cares? She makes even the gibberish of scat syllables piercingly specific.
Though Disher is the one who undergoes the most dramatic change — he eventually becomes the “Grand Exalted Giraw” of a Klanlike organization — I found myself more interested in Madame Sisseretta. In part that’s because she’s not allegorical; she’s a practical businesswoman who understands that her vanishing trade in hair straighteners and skin lighteners is different only by degree from Crookman’s. In the song “Right Amount of White” — “Just a little pinch of French/Just a slight touch of Dutch/Just a little bit of Brit” — she establishes the show’s themes and relevance with humor and theatrical specificity that’s mostly absent elsewhere.
As “Black No More” continues its development process, it will surely need to find more breathing space like that between the whimsy of the novel and its current chaotic gloom. (Except for Qween Jean’s sexy costumes, the design is almost punitively cold.) I hope the authors can do so without losing what’s already beautiful about this promising work — keeping in mind that beauty, if not (according to “Black No More”) Blackness, is only skin deep.
Black No More
Through Feb. 27 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; thenewgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.