Friday, April 10, 2009

Angela's Mixtape


By Eisa Davis. Directed by Liesl Tommy. New Georges and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival at the Ohio Theatre. (CLOSED)

The title is not false advertising, critics agree: Eisa Davis' memoir about her upbringing as the niece of radical 1970s icon Angela Davis has the eclecticism, liveliness, and short attention span of a good mixtape. Critics do diverge, though, on whether this scattered style is enough to sustain the show: A few, like the Times' Charles Isherwood, find the result consistently compelling, while others, That Sounds Cool's Aaron Riccio in particular, feel this superficial approach squanders some rich countercultural history, and the rest fall somewhere between them. A few reviews note a resonant casting curiosity: Linda Powell, daughter of Colin, happens to be the actress playing the imprisoned Angela Davis.

New Yorker A
Starts off as a rollicking tribute to Davis’s aunt, the sixties icon Angela Davis, but it ends up as much more. This New Georges/Hip-Hop Theatre Festival production is a revealing portrait of a young artist (born in 1970, while her aunt is in prison) struggling to find herself, while growing up in the shadow of three enormously strong, brilliant, and successful black women steeped in radical sixties politics. The cast of five women, including the multitalented playwright, is fully committed to what might be the Obama generation’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) [An] appropriately turbulent and quite funny show about the forces that influence the forging of identity. Styled as an affectionate tribute to her aunt as well as a memoir of her own unusual upbringing, “Angela’s Mixtape” is a rhythmic collage of scenes, songs and reminiscences. It hopscotches from the 1970s to the 1980s and beyond, moving back and forth in time...Although the tone of the scenes set in Ms. Davis’s early youth are rich in humor and crazy paradox — she and her mother earnestly discuss the ontological questions raised by the movie “Back to the Future” in one particularly loopy passage — the aching sense of casual neglect is unmistakable. For the most part, however, Ms. Davis does not dig too deeply into the darker material; as an autobiography, “Angela’s Mixtape” is fleet and mostly sweet, accenting the comic wonders of the world in which she grew up, and often breaking into a perky dance just when matters begin to get emotional. That’s not a major drawback, since the history of the family that is woven into the show is naturally absorbing and at times harrowing.

Village Voice A-
(Alexis Soloski) A 122-beats-per-minute bildungsroman, a hectic and moving evocation of Davis's unconventional Oakland upbringing and relationships with her family—which includes her notorious aunt, the professor and political activist Angela Davis...At times, Angela's Mixtape resembles a one-woman show that outgrew itself. Though Davis's script and director Liesl Tommy demand much of every cast member, the play sometimes seems simply a lively justification for Davis's ample skills—singing, dancing, acting, and playing concert piano...But the form of the mixtape elevates the play out of indulgence: The short scenes slip by, sliding into new selections, with themes and motifs occasionally recurring, as if sampled from another track. A-
(Matt Johnston) Davis and director Liesl Tommy attempt in the writing and staging of the play to structure it like a mixtape, which I found kind of confusing and unclear. I don't know how much it serves the story—even when I figured out what they were doing (at about the halfway mark) I still didn't see much of a benefit in that sort of muddled structure—but it does lend itself to Davis and the talented cast's ability to create some beautiful music, which they often do...The acting is, in a word, top-notch. Davis's performance (as herself) is nothing short of spectacular, Linda Powell is a powerful but measured Angela Davis, and Kim Brockington, playing Eisa's mother, carries just the right amount of vulnerability and strength. I also have to mention the fantastic chameleon-like performances from Ayesha Ngaujah and Denise Burse, helping Eisa pull this memoir through. Despite some structurally confusing bumps in the road, Angela's Mixtape is an important piece of theatre to see.

Offoffonline A-
(Mitch Montgomery) Does Davis’s “tape” make the cut? Absolutely. A sharp, unifying staging from director Liesl Tommy imbues Davis’s bouncy narrative with the perfect rhythm. Eisa’s questions about fitting in, classifying her race to friends, and later, wrestling with her family legacy, mature naturally in the story and are often punctuated with harmonic bits of a capella singing. Music, Davis proves, keeps time superbly...Where Passing Strange was content to be a fun ride from adolescence to adulthood, Mixtape’s protagonist emerges from her larval stage actualized and equipped to take on social injustice, like her aunt did in the seventies. Only one aspect felt self-indulgent – a scene near the end when Eisa directly asks Aunt Angela if she has lived up to her name. But any minor discomfort will be worth it, because Ms. Davis is a joy to watch otherwise.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) In this radiant writer-performer's autobiographical play, Angela's Mixtape, [Eisa Davis] reveals her personal and political awakening in a family of fervent African-American socialists—the most prominent of whom was Black Panther folk hero Angela Davis...Davis plays herself from precocious girl to wised-up woman, poking affectionate fun at her vegetarian black-power household, presided over by a revolution-obsessed mother...Leisl Tommy wittily stages the quick-moving collage with an excellent cast (rounded out by Ayesha Ngaujah and Denise Burse). Davis celebrates exactly what you'd expect in this show—sisterhood, social justice, racial pride—but this sly performer suggests there's more mystery in life.

Lighting & Sound America B+
(David Barbour) For most of its 90 minutes, Angela's Mixtape is a bright-eyed and amusingly detailed account of a childhood spent among a quartet of strong and accomplished women...What conflict there is in Angela's Mixtape has to do with Eisa's feelings of dislocation, her lack of sympathy for her mother and aunt's all-politics-all-the-time viewpoint, and her fear that she won't be able to live up to the family name. Compared to all the stories this family has to tell, it's pretty thin stuff...Fortunately, Eisa is an ingratiating hostess, full of pep and vinegar and always ready to break into a song or two...Liesl Tommy's staging is well-paced and full of high spirits, yet it never devolves into a series of cute anecdotes; she makes sure we remember that this family's landscape is marred by episodes of bloodshed and imprisonment...Angela's Mixtape has no real drama to offer; instead, Eisa Davis is content to mine her family history for its exotic, and occasionally comic, details. Taken on its own terms, it's a charming reminder that even revolutionaries have domestic lives.

Theatermania B
(Andy Buck) A lively if limited valentine to the women in the author's life...We see the playwright one moment as a brooding teenager, the next as a little girl, then as a grown woman. As a performer, Davis conveys these quick changes with ease...On the other hand, her writing comes across a bit sketchily...Director Liesl Tommy's greatest contribution is probably helping the majority of the cast add such dimensions to their parts without, for the most part, going over the top...However, without the presence of Davis in the lead, Angela's Mixtape would be little more than a somewhat interesting look at the life of an American revolutionary and the young woman she inspired.

Backstage B+
(Andy Propst) An entertainingly edgy theatrical collage that tells a unique coming-of-age story from the late 1970s through the early 1990s...It's a heady mix of stories -- both humorous and touching -- that Davis has to tell, and the play is never anything less than fascinating. However, when music combines with spoken word, Angela's Mixtape feels too episodic. Davis' intent is to give theatrical snapshots of the events that must have seemed as if they were swirling around her as a young woman, but the effect for theatregoers can be a little dizzying. Director Liesl Tommy's staging is always vibrant, and though she's elicited finely crafted performances from the five-woman cast -- particularly from newcomer Ayesha Ngaujah in multiple roles -- the production meanders as it darts back and forth through time.

That Sounds Cool C+
(Aaron Riccio) For all the classic style Eisa brings—illuminated prints of her family warm Clint Ramos’s homey set, or the old-school cassette-playing boombox—Angela’s Mixtape is missing the beat...What Eisa’s chosen to show us of her childhood at Berkley and college years at Harvard don’t have much for dramatic hardship (her biggest conflict: “Are you mixed?”). By not walking a mile in the oppressed footsteps of her mother and aunt—and because she’s chosen a jumpy narrative structure (a mix)—Angela’s Mixtape often feels secondhand: it’s never really in the moment.

New Yorker A 13; The New York Times A- 12; VV A- 12; A- 12; Offoffonline A- 12; TONY B+ 11; Lighting & Sound America B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; Theatermania B 10; That Sounds Cool C+ 8; 112/10= 11.2 (B+)

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