The Black Experience Onstage

Article excerpt

The best shows in town right now are "Having Our Say" at the Kennedy Center, "Hip 2: Birth of the Boom" at Studio Theatre and "A Huey P. Newton Story" at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

These shows have more in common than just the letter H, starting (but by no means ending) with the fact that each is about the black experience in America.

"Having Our Say" takes the longest view. The play, adapted by white writer-director Emily Mann, is based on the best-selling autobiography of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two centenarian sisters whose father was born into slavery.

"A Huey P. Newton Story," Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man show profiling one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, is rooted in the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, but is relevant enough to get segments of the audience worked up.

And "Hip 2" is the very '90s voyage of writer-performer Thomas W. Jones II's alter ego, Afro-Jo, a hipster struggling toward greater self-knowledge.

All three shows are being driven by intelligent, charismatic performances. None of them is a conventional play. They are conversations.

The Delanys talk familiarly to the audience as they discuss their lives while preparing a family dinner in their Mount Vernon, N.Y., home. Mr. Smith's Huey, seated behind a microphone on a dark stage with nothing but an ashtray for furniture, seems to be testifying in a time warp. And Mr. Jones, accompanied by a chorus of male singers and comrades (the Do-Wops), often works the audience as directly as a stand-up comedian, calling for reactions and good-naturedly picking on customers in the front rows.

Are these enjoyable, insightful "conversations" taking center stage because there are no good "plays," in the traditional sense, by black playwrights?

Possibly. …