At a time when we should all be thinking about how America’s history might be taught in all its blood and glory, Definition Theatre succeeds in tossing new ingredients into this steamy pot of burgoo. Its new theatrical film, America v.2.1: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro, is a raw, sad and funny story of a future America, told in four parts. The script is by Stacey Rose, with direction by Definition’s artistic director, Tyrone Phillips.
The production is a sort of pageant within a play, set within what seems like a white-supremacist entertainment center. The corporate Voice (Carley Cornelius) orders the four historical re-enactors to their places and announces breaks. The Voice occasionally chides and argues with their leader, Donavan (Kenneth D. Johnson), who for some reason thinks that 10 shows in 12 hours 6 days a week with two 30-minute breaks per day is too much for his actors.
The sections are titled, more or less: 1. Arrival through slave work; 2. War, hell and the unfortunate liberation; 3. Dark days of the civil rights movement; and 4. The Negro golden age and his final demise.
Performers Donavan, Leigh (Martasia Jones), Grant (Victor Musoni) and Jeffrey (Bernard Gilbert) perform all the historic roles, from the Almighty Founding Fathers to iconic figures such as Thomas Jefferson Hamilton, Jesus Christ Lincoln, the urban terrorist Rosa Parks, King Dr. Martin Jesse Jackson, Presidents William Clanton Bosby and Baraka Saddam Osama, and the founder of hippity-hop, Run Cool Jay-Z. (Osama begins his speech this way, “I dreamed of this day where I was born in Kenya, reading the Qur’an on my prayer rug….”)
We also get to know Leigh, Grant and Jeffery as people in their backstage moments, as they chafe under the corporate strictures; Jeffrey yearns to be reunited with his son, taken from him by the government.
Rose and Phillips make use of many theatrical elements in telling this story, including vaudeville, minstrel shows, church pulpits, political campaigns, and TV-style interviews. Set design is by Yu Shibagaki with costumes by Kristy Hall. Lighting design is by Jason Lynch and lighting direction by Slick Jorgensen. Projections are by Mike Tutaj. Sound design is by David Samba and Conner Wang. Music is directed and composed by Christie Chiles Twillie with choreography by Steph Paul. Manny Ortiz is technical director. The production was filmed at the Vittum Theater in Noble Square.
America v.2.1 is a worthy addition to that list of razor-sharp plays by Black writers that use U.S. racist history to tell a topsy-turvy story. Best-known among these today is probably Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play (it set a record with 12 well-deserved Tony nominations, but received zero awards). Others on this list are Definition’s fine An Octoroon from 2017, Congo Square’s satirical fantasy, Day of Absence, produced just before the pandemic hit, and Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment by Red Tape Theatre in 2018. Although Raven Theatre’s excellent production of the drama, Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, tells a more straightforward story, it also makes use of vaudeville and minstrel show style and makeup.
Phillips says, in his director’s note, “This story is a warning shot to all of America as it reckons with the systems at play at the foundation of our country. It gives us a glimpse into a possible future in which our society has become complacent to false leaders and begs us to reckon with who is responsible for preserving the truth of our shared American history…. We, artists, have the power, right, and responsibility to preserve the truth in our work. The scary reality is the world of America v2.1 is one that doesn’t seem so far away….”
America v.2.1 is available for streaming on demand through November 21. Running time is about 75 minutes. Tickets are $30 for one to three viewers or $100 for a watch party (four or more viewers). Access to the performance expires 72 hours after you start the video.