God DAMN there have been so many incredible plays produced on Seattle stages already this summer. Lydia. Barbecue. The Realistic Joneses. These shows were all must-sees, and I said as much in my reviews of them. So I'm worried you'll accuse me of critical dilution or gone-softitude if I beam about the excellence and relevance and intelligence and general OMGness of Book-It's page-to-stage adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson's highly praised novel, Welcome to Braggsville. But I cannot tell a lie. You have to see this play. You also have to go see Johnson in conversation with the play's adapters, Josh Aaseng and Daemond Arrindell, this Saturday. Believe me, you'll have plenty of questions.
Here's the very strong premise: A diverse group of UC-Berkley college freshman decide to stage a lynching during a Civil War reenactment in Braggsville, Georgia. The idea, which was developed during a class about the history of activism, was to trigger a racist reaction among the small town Georgians in order to reveal to them how racist their annual ode to Dixie really is. When this theater of would-be civil rights activism meets the theater of America's racist past/present, everything goes horribly wrong.
Here's the group:
Charlie is a closeted black guy from Chicago whose dad died when he was young. D'aron is a small-town boy who was called a fag by his fellow southerners for being relatively smart and having feelings. Candice is a well-meaning white feminist from Iowa who claims she's "1/8th" Native American. Louis is a wise-cracking Malaysian-American who's known for pushing the envelope. He says he wants to be the Lenny Bruce Lee of comedy.
Here's what my face looked like when this group announced their plan to stage a lynching:
As the plan develops and unspools horrifically, a narrator-figure called Poet, played by Naa Akua (who recently moved to Seattle from the Bronx), stops time to lyrically interrogate each of the characters. To stop the action, the Poet shouts "porque," a Spanish word that means both "why" and "because," a word that contains the question and the reason.
The play's most intense, heart-wrenching scene occurs during one of these moments, when the Poet tries desperately to convince D'aron that white supremacy courses through him even though he doesn't seem to think it does. During their questioning, Akua just barely breaks character, blurring but holding the line between their role as the Poet and their self as a black person just walking around and trying to live without being shot by a cop who, in the words of Claudia Rankine, can't police his or her own imagination. Earlier in the play, the ensemble listed the names of the people whose tragedies were most recently in the news—including Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles— and Akua's exasperated performance in that moment brought the collective weight of their loss back into the room.
The play is nearly three hours long, but I didn't feel a single second of it. Credit here due to fine acting (superb acting in the case of Huertas and Akua), but mostly to Aaseng's and Arrindell's adaptation of Johnson's story. Adapting a novel of this quality without losing its best qualities is a heroic task, but this team has managed to accomplish it.