The serious, stately race play of old has lately given way to a new genre: the ironic, satirical race play, flirting with discomfort and implicating its audiences.
“3/Fifths,” “Underground Railroad Game,” “Slave Play” and now “The Black History Museum … According to the United States of America,” presented by Here Arts Center and Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative, use humor to attack and address microaggressions, aggression-aggressions, stereotypes and preconceived notions of race.
This elaborately designed show, created and directed by Zoey Martinson, makes an exhibit, a dance, a game, a poem, a skit, an archive and an oral history of blackness. But which elements work, and to what degree, vary, blunting the impact of its most striking accomplishments.
Those certainly include the indispensable work of the scenic designer D’Vaughn Agu. Magically transforming Here Arts Center into the eponymous museum, he recreates — in compact nooks and crannies throughout the space — a cotton field, a barbershop, a memorial to the Obama presidency and a mesmerizing wall punctuated with protruding three-dimensional limbs.
Not unlike those who dared step into SupremacyLand in the equally immersive “3/Fifths,” audiences here must arm themselves with an identity before continuing: They’re granted literal “black cards” and informed of the conditions of their blackness by Jasper Sasparilla (Robert King), a waggish “magical mulatto” escort.
A man only called The Descendant (Kareem M. Lucas) serves as a kind of Dickensian ghost-guide, a beacon of black wokeness. The Founding Fathers, played by the black actors Marcia Berry, Langston Darby, Tabatha Gayle, Landon Woodson, and Tori Ann DeNoble, appear as foils — representatives of white supremacy in America. (Only half their faces are painted white, to remind us of the slaves our founders owned.)
Jefferson and company usher the audience into the museum proper, which leads us from the beginnings of slavery into our time of President Trump. Along the way, “The Black History Museum” engages in a fascinating push-pull, between subtle interpretation and outspoken proclamation, earnest installation and interactive playground.
A section on the Middle Passage begins with joyous African dance until the performers contort beneath the cracks of invisible whips. In another exhibit, a dancer inside a box festooned with black movie posters puts on whiteface in front of a mirror, preparing for a minstrel performance.
These moments, rhapsodic and uncaptioned, are the most affecting, the production’s dancers seamlessly incorporated into the action. The dazzlingly emotive Latra Wilson is especially arresting.
Other rich nuggets: a showcase, with audio, of real love letters written by slaves; excerpts from a performance-art project about black hair and identity; a “closeted history” that finds a television showing footage of Bayard Rustin, literally in a closet.
Though audiences are ostensibly welcome to wander some sections at their leisure, they’re promptly ushered to the next timed performance, and there isn’t enough chance to ruminate on each segment in full.
And each also raises a question of curatorial exclusion: Why these topics, and not others? The logic isn’t always clear or totally coherent.
An interactive exhibit called “The Reconstruction Game” finds humor in the uphill battle for black progress, but overstays its welcome; so does a faux political forum that features slapdash impressions of some American presidents. Lucas makes an energizing Descendant, though the character’s poetic speeches occasionally suffer from long-windedness.
It’s an issue of didacticism, mostly. “The Black History Museum” wants to tell and to teach — “What did you learn here?” Jasper asks at the end, as though the audience can’t be trusted to absorb its lessons.
The two-hour experience entertains and moves, but only when it doesn’t undercut itself by overpreaching. More successful as art project than satire, the show dares to ask after a definition of blackness. Its answers frequently rise to, though sometimes bend beneath, the challenge.
The Black History Museum … According to the United States of America
Through Nov. 24 at HERE Arts Center, Manhattan; 212-647-0202, here.org. Running time: 2 hours.