Even though Malika (Anyanwu) was born female, she only felt she was herself until she became Messiah (Tanisha Thompson) a DJ and aspiring rapper who happens to be male. Now Malika has to face a world that rejects Messiah, but soon will discover that one of Messiah’s biggest enemies is probably himself. The story at the center of Nia Witherspoon’s The Messiah Complex is one that hasn’t really been told in the theatre (or any other medium for that matter), it’s a story of self-discovery that seeks to reclaim what one of the characters refers to as “stolen black bodies”. It’s refreshing to see a play that’s both emotionally involving and politically charged, as Witherspoon aims to find links between a black generation brought up on the Black Panthers, and one in which one’s soul is not doomed to remain forever trapped in a body that doesn’t quite fit.
As an essay on an intergenerational bridge, The Messiah Complex poses some fascinating ideas. It’s telling that the lead character isn’t even the most interesting or complex person in the play, for instance Messiah’s parents Belinda (Shelley Nicole) and Curtis (Mikel Banks) almost make one wish there were entire plays dedicated to them. Their relationship presented both in times of extreme love and all-consuming loathing is the stuff that would make Albee squirm. It’s also interesting to see Witherspoon establish a “traditional” Oedipal complex at the center of Messiah’s relationship with his father. Even though he refuses to stop calling him “daughter”.
What betrays the show and prevents it from achieving transcendence is how over-produced and strangely unfocused the direction is. Director Charlotte Brathwaite gets insightful performances from the ensemble (Kirya Traber as Messiah’s girlfriend is a standout) but she doesn’t seem to trust the complexity of Witherspoon’s play and tries to digest everything through an overuse of stylistic flourishes. There are musical interludes, spiritual ceremonies, speeches, interpretive dancing, an awkwardly placed intermission that kills the show’s crescendo, and most baffling of all there is an invasive, often very distracting musical score that adds an unnecessary beat to otherwise beautifully mounted scenes. By the time there’s a ceremony dedicated to sea goddess Iemanjá, one can’t help but feel lost. The characters already contain multitudes, all the adornments are patronizing.
Witherspoon’s play raises some fascinating questions about the boundaries set by societal structures that only pretend to abide to tolerance, and it raises questions about whether the law should be respected by people who are otherwise oppressed by the system. As sociopolitical text, The Messiah Complex is absolutely remarkable, as a theatrical piece it leaves very much to be desired.