Life Among the Aryans  

Happy Former White Racists who took the “Black Shot”

 A Profound Play that Speaks to Our Times

Once more Rome Neal, distinguished actor and Director of Theater at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a cultural landmark in the East Village, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has brought us a new work by Ishmael Reed.  Mr. Reed – a McAarthur “Genius” award winner and prolific author of fiction, essays and plays – is an iconoclast armed with a pen who is not timid about slaughtering sacred cows if their demise will reveal truth!  He has proclaimed that “writin is fightin,” and certainly pulls no punches in the present play. With his customary erudition and devastating mad cap humor, Ishmael attacks all the hidden hypocrisies of the GOP – Grand Obstructionist Party – in the age of Trump, who is thinly disguised as PP Spanky in the play.

It is a subject worthy of a Shakespeare, but since Sweet Willie is unavailable let us thank the Gods and Ancestors that we have the sizziling secular gospels of Ishmael.  This secular evangelist has chosen the novel and the play as the vehicle for his revelatory sermons, and the theater is his church. While there were no references to religious texts there was much moral preachment, excoriation of sinners, and advocacy on behalf of the poor and powerless – just as Jesus Christ commanded us to do and the blaspheming Bible thumpers masquerading as “Evangelical Christians” have failed to do.  However, the erudition of the script was leavened by generous doses of humor.  Ishmael has been roundly praised for his brilliant use of satire, Irony and parody, and these gifts were on prominent display in Life Among the Aryans.

Ishmael uses several narrative techniques to explore the ideas and emotions of those deranged white supremacists who brought us the Trump phenomenon, and also gives voice to those with opposing arguments.  As is the case with his novels, Ishmael employs innovative methods to tell his tale, the essence of which he describes thusly:

“The time is the future. Having elected a clown president, whose administration was the worst disaster since the regime of the Romanovs, Brietbart nationalists are now confronted with the election of a Jewish President, whose FBI  head is a Black man, the ultimate nightmare of Brietbart  nationalism.  The last straw occurs when the government decides to Black citizens whose ancestors suffered the horrors of slavery.  Two White nationalist, John Shaw and Michael Mulvaney have come under they sway of an ethno-nationalist leader, the smooth talking leader Matthews.  He has persuaded his followers that a violent revolution has to occur and will take place as soon as the trucks bringing manure for the purpose of making explosives arrive.  It’s been a year, and his donors are getting restless.”

To relate this absurdist futuristic fable, Ishmael uses newscasters played by Monisha Shiva, and N. Allam Forster to set up the scenes.  Shiva’s character is positioned on stage in such a way as to approximate a television news anchor, and Foster plays an on the street reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins, a New Yorker who has traveled out in the boonies to do live interviews with the “real Americans” whom the coastal elites have either reduced to figures of ridicule or ignored all together.  Sobbins approaches his task as if it is safari among near savages, lamenting the fact that he is forced to give up his Eggs Benedict breakfast for grits, and his lattes for Maxwell House Coffee.

Early on we are given a peek into the psychic of the type of people that marched in Charlottesville Virginia, shouting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.”  They are symbolized by two down and out white males who have fallen out of the work force, are structurally employed, and had been living in the criminal underground economy.  Played by Tom Angelo, Michael Mulvaney is an angry displaced factory worker who is selling the dangerous drug Meth Amphetamine – which has become the drug of choice for many dispossessed and disillusioned white Americans.  John Shaw, his close comrade in the local white supremacists brotherhood, played by Frank Martin, is a former dealer in pirated interracial porn flicks.  To our surprise, Rome announced after the performance that Martin had never acted before this production.

In the conversations between them we hear much of what passes for conventional wisdom in this sad sack white trash crowd.  They rejoice in the fact that “the monkey family” has been removed from the White House, Obama and his “prostitute wife and crack head daughters.” They rail against the outrage that the niggers are getting everything, and poor whites are getting nothing.  They look forward to the day of their deliverance when a million heavily armed white men “march on Washington.” Ishmael is relentless in his portrayal of their stupidity, which is magnified by their blind faith in the local white supremacist leader Jack Matthews, who bleeds them for every cent he can get.  Not only do thy go into debt, which their hard-working wives must pay, but they even rob a bank to get the money Matthews needs to open the new headquarters.

But then, Ishmael is always full of surprises and things seldom are what they seem. First Sobbin’s interviews reveal that the white supremacists are not all losers, as he finds out that the president of the local college is among their number. Then we discover that Matthews – convincingly played by the imposing figure of Timothy Mullins – is a professional con artist whose street name is “Chicago Ed.”

Ed’s true identity is revealed when he runs into a black fellow grifter that he has known for years, who is posing as a Dr. Korkman, wonderfully played by the versatile actor Maurice Carlton, who is running a racket that is making money hand over fist.   The way the two old bunko artists greet each other, and the enthusiastic camaraderie among them, reminds me of the relationship between Donald Trump and the black boxing promoter Don King, from whom Trump learned the long-range con.  I have written about this in some detail in “Game Recognizes Game” * (see link to article at bottom of page this essay.)

The racket Dr. Korkman is running, which is a major plot of the play, comes as a big surprise and reminds me of a famous novel “Black        No More,” written by the caustic and irreverent satirist George Schuyler in the early 20th century.  However, Ishmael flips the script. Whereas in Black No More a white doctor comes up with a pill that will make black people white, Dr. Korkman has a shot that can make white people black!

At the time Schuyler wrote his novel Afro-Americans were living under the hellish conditions of legal apartheid, which was a blueprint for institutionalized white supremacy.   Hence the incentive for blacks wanting to become white.   The incentive for whites to become black in the play is the US government’s decision to pay all black Americans a cash payment of $50.000 as reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors.  The white supremacists rail against the payments…until they discover Dr. Korkman’s magical shot that could get them 50 grand, the formula for which he stole from a graduate student then set up shop.  This act exposes the “White Nationalists” to be as venal as they are stupid.

Perhaps the greatest gift that Ishmael has as a writer is his ability to combine great erudition with side splitting humor to impart complex critical information.  This is no picayune achievement, given the difference in the nature of the tasks, and few have managed to pull it off successfully.   However, through the liberal use of the monologue, a device much beloved by Shakespeare, Ishmael pulls it off marvelously!

Although any successful drama begins with the script, it is the actors that must bring the dramatist’s vision to life and “keep it real” as the rappers say.  In talking with the actors after the play, it became abundantly clear that breathing life into these complex monologues – in which Ishmael sometimes becomes more pundit that poet in addressing the great issues he confronts – was no easy pickings.

They spoke of the challenge in bringing them to life, but they testified to the joy of mastering this unique and immensely relevant material. It is much like listening to virtuoso musicians who have performed a great score; for when the composers conceive of music it is the complexities of the music, not the difficulties of the musicians, that is foremost in their minds. They write the music as they hear it in their heads; it is up to the instrumentalists to development the technique to play it.  So it is with actors.  And there was no finer example of this than Eric Frazier’s electrifying performance as Black Man/Black John, or Malika Iman’s charming performance as Doris Johnson as she warned the reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins about the perils of “Sundown Towns.”

In a statement titled “Words from the Author” printed in the program, Ishmael makes his purpose abundantly clear:

“All of my plays have been done at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California, and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  Not once has my director, Rome Neal, or the Nuyorican attempted to shut down my message.  These are the times when, as with the living newspaper, a WPA theater of the 1930’s, artists have to step in and do the job that the corporate media, which makes excuses for haters, fails to do.”

In commercial talk radio it is an article of faith among producers that the most successful product is “edutainment;” to find that special combination of material that enables the broadcaster to educate and entertain his audience simultaneously. This is the task that Ishmael routinely takes on in all of his works with great artistic success; life among the Aliens is no exception.  When I saw the play at the Sunday matinee the house was full and the audience enthusiastic.

Yet despite the brilliance of the play and the skill of the actors, the role of the support crew is indispensable to the success of a play.  Hence the costume designs of Carolyn Adams; the Poster Graphic designs of Afiya Owens; the Sound Design of Alex Santulo, the Set Design of Marlon Campbell and the work of Doug Wade, the Master Carpenter that built the sets, which were illuminated with the Lighting Design of Rome Neal all contributed mightily to our experience of the play.

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Outstanding Members of  The Cast

                                          Director Rome Neal                                  

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Maurice Carlton

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Timothy Mullins

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Angela Shaw and Kim Austin

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Rome Neal  and Maurice Carlton

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Rome Presenting the Shekere Award to Newly Minted Actor

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Monisha Shiva

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Rome Serenading the Audience

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Audience Members Passionately discuss the Play

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 18, 2018

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