When keeping it `Real' goes right


February 10, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The new production at the Theatre Project takes a loaded, pejorative word and shows how it can assume meanings beyond that of a racist epithet, and how the people to whom it is applied can turn it around and make it an emblem of their own strength.

"No word ... stirs more outrage among people of color," one actor acknowledges on stage. "I would never go to see something like that," another says later, tearing up a poster for the show.

But ugly as the title of A Real `Nigga' Show may be, Baltimorean Troy Burton, who conceived and directed the show, explains that he chose the title and the unconventional spelling for two reasons: "First of all, to provoke thought in people, and second, to attract the hip-hop generation and illustrate to them that their stories can be placed on the stage."

And, this eclectic "choreopoem" is certainly thought-provoking. Under the guidance of Burton - program director of the Eubie Blake Center and a former teacher in the city schools - the show is an example of the way art can subvert ugliness and, in this case, use it to explode stereotypes.

His script, written in collaboration with seven others - including five of the six cast members - consists of almost three dozen short prose pieces, poems and sketches, including poems by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and broadcast sound bites by everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Richard Pryor and Tupac Shakur.

Perhaps because it is the work of so many hands, the result is uneven. On the minus side is an original vignette late in the second act that includes sexual content inappropriate for young people - an especially unfortunate choice since so much of the show sets a positive example.

On the plus side, however, seeing an ensemble of African-American actors take on a wide variety of credible guises - young, old, successful, struggling, troubled, arrogant, modest, etc. - defies narrow preconceptions, by definition.

The theme of diversity is further reinforced by a powerful refrain that repeats, with variations, throughout the production. "You thought I was him ... ," the refrain begins. The different ways it ends - such as "but I don't own a gun," or "but I don't play basketball" - not only refute stereotypes, they also serve as reminders of the broad range of individuals who make up any racial or ethnic group.

All of the actors - half are veterans of HBO's The Wire - deliver strong, versatile performances. Among the standouts is 18-year-old Melvin T. Russell's portrayal of a responsible son visiting his no-account father. Russell delivers his monologue to an empty rail-back chair, which may be a way of suggesting that the father is in jail or a way of dramatizing his absence. In either case, the actor's words are so wrenching and heartfelt ("You just lost your son; you just lost your heart") that you can almost picture his disgraced father sitting across from him.

A few of the pieces are autobiographical. Ezekiel Jackson and Malik Maloney deliver particularly moving monologues about serving in the Navy and being a biracial student bused to a predominantly white school, respectively.

Near the end, in one of the "you thought" segments, an actor proclaims: "You thought I was him - but I'm me." This assertion of individuality exemplifies the tone of the production. Not only do the performers reclaim a racial slur and use it to their advantage, they also pass a proud, confident image on to the next generation.

Theatre Project

Where: 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees at 10:30 a.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $16

Call: 410-752-8558

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