"I want to write something so Black that God can't ignore me." Playwright and performer Kareem M. Lucas speaks these words while standing on a huge wooden cross enshrined in a massive gold frame. The play is iNegro, a rhapsody, directed by Zoey Martinson at the New Ohio Theatre. And yes, Lucas knows exactly what he's doing.
iNegro may make audiences uncomfortable, but it's not just discomfort for the sake of it. Split into seven movements, each corresponding to one of the seven last sayings of Christ, this ritualistic theatre poem explores suffering, abandonment, identity, love, and purpose (or lack thereof) through the lens of a young Black man whose birth was an accident and whose father abandoned him at a young age. Although it's probably more accurate to describe it as a hate letter than a love letter (Lucas condemns everyone from Mickey Mouse to his own father to God), this narrative solo piece brims with barely contained passion and desire--desire for a kind of love and belonging that eludes the accidental, abandoned son.
After reflecting on the Black experience and his wish to create something inherently "Black," Lucas tells of a miserable childhood and the relief he sought in Disney delusions, only to realize that Mickey Mouse had been lying through his teeth (he exempts Simba from the general blame, but comes down hard on those racist crows from Dumbo). He goes on to detail the trauma caused by having an absentee father, and recounts his resulting struggles to love both others and himself. When Disney fails, he seeks relief in alcohol, weed, and religion. But at the end, his search for acceptance is far from resolved, and returning to his opening, he wonders if this work is "Black enough."
I'll just go ahead and say it: I'm not Black, and as such, I suspect that much of this play swept by me. But even so, I found iNegro disruptive and real, its combination of starkness and lyricism startling. It's a hurricane of a play that strikes with a peculiarly biting force: alternately electrifying, entertaining, and devastating. And as a lover of words, Lucas' syntax often left me breathless. He wields phrases like fireworks: rhyming, alliterating, and turning previous sentences on their heads to masterful effect. "Go on," he tells the audience after a self-deprecating joke, "you can laugh." But almost immediately, he adds: "laugh at my pain," and the moment turns sour. Although the audience on the night I saw the show was completely silent, iNegro feels more like a conversation than a lecture. At times, Lucas seems to beg a reply, and it's difficult to stay silent. Unconventional theatre, iNegro is not a play for those who want to sit back and watch, safely unseen by the actors. Like the performer on his cross, this piece reveals us to ourselves: unearthing the pain and ugliness that trouble our desperate strivings for joy. Whether or not God can ignore him, I don't know--I couldn't.
Written and performed by Kareem M. Lucas and directed by Zoey Martinson, 'iNegro, a rhapsody' runs through May 16 at the New Ohio Theatre. For more info and to purchase tickets, see the link below: https://newohiotheatre.org/programs/the-maturation-of-an-inconvenient-negro-or-inegro/