“The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it.”
– Amiri Baraka, Negro Digest, vol. 14, no. 6 (April 1965)
At the conclusion of this show, I had the chance to chat with Scott Baker of Performers Under Stress. He was telling me of his affinity for James Baldwin – one of the quoted heroes of this show – whom he held in higher regard than William Faulkner. I chuckled because as good a writer as Faulkner was, my instinctual reaction to his name is to recall his 1956 “Letter to the North” for Life magazine. In that piece, he empathizes with the budding Civil Rights Movement, but eventually goes full “whitesplainer”, telling the NAACP they ought to “Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment,” lest White people get scared.
Later that same month, a Baptist minister by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. replied by calmly and eloquently telling Faulkner to go fuck himself (though not in those words).
It wouldn’t have been the least bit surprising to find that incident, or one similar, pop up in Rotimi Agbabiaka’s Manifesto. The one-man show – a follow up to his critically-acclaimed Type/Cast – takes just as many shots at self-congratulatory “woke” White liberals as it does with crab-mentality Black folks who would slice one another’s throats to get ahead. Most of all, he’s harshest on himself – and when you are your own worst critic, nothing said against you can harm you, right? Right?
Before I go on, I should mention that I’ve loosely worked with Agbabiaka before (I was the house manager of a show he was in) and in a more direct manner when I ran tech for a special performance of Type/Cast, this show’s predecessor. Other than that, our connection is limited to the fact that we’re both Black actors in the Bay Area. We’ve often been up for the same parts and know a lot of the same people.
Being one-of-a-few-Black-actors out for the same role is a recurring theme in Manifesto, which opens with Agbabiaka addressing the audience directly as he serves as his own hype-man. After jokingly telling us that he’s not waiting by the phone for a call from a casting director – wouldn’t you know it? He gets a call right then and there. And off he goes to the Big Apple to make it in a town where everyone thinks he smiles too much.
Thus begins a series of loosely-connected skits and sketches satirizing the “Damned if ya do/damned if ya don’t” nature of being a Black actor. From dealing with White producers whose journey toward diversity is a long, slow road to nowhere (we meet one producer who put on an all-White production of Raisin in the Sun) to unsuccessful Black artists who have chosen financial stability over artistic fulfillment. It’s a world where young White artists describe their work with Silicon Valley buzzwords like “disrupt” as they crank out the same tired material. It’s a world in which a talent Black performer tries to stick to his principles by not taking on cliché roles (“the Gay best friend”) but curses the world for not working after having turned down that role.
And we experience it all through the filter of a chameleon and natural showman. A flick of the wrist here, a gruff inflection there, a slouch in the seat – all of it brings to life a menagerie of personalities somehow all stuffed into one person. Yet, even at his most critical, our host goes out of his way to give his characters souls. Whether or not he believes what the characters say, it’s clear that they believe it. (A standout line: “In LA, theatre is done for one purpose: to get on tv.”) The lamentations of a former-performer-turned-soap-maker waxing nostalgic on a (cheaper) SF gone by has the same grounded resonance as a bleeding-hearted White producer who doesn’t realize he’s Whitesplaining the way Black people use the word “nigga”. The characters all (think they) mean well, but they have blind spots.
This includes Rotimi himself, whose most crucial back-and-forth is a phone call between himself and his father, still in Nigeria. Not only does our host have fun recreating his old man – who misinterprets the term “Off-Broadway” as meaning his son’s been fired from a proper Broadway production – but he also has his most explicit contemplation about art, representation, and commerce. His father clearly isn’t partial to performing arts – saying that theatre is “[for] White people – but he’s wise enough to take his son to task for making bold declarations of artistic intent and representation, whilst settling for whatever is available. It’s problem we know well, but have yet to solve.
“But why,” you may ask, “is the play called Manifesto?” Because it’s Rotimi’s declaration to not limit his status to what is asked for as the result of a trend. Whereas Type/Cast was a history lesson and theoretical, Manifesto is the first step on a journey of putting that knowledge into practice. It not only reveals that the blackfaced pickaninnies have simply evolved into a new form, it revels in the power of reclaiming those images from the oppressor. It features the return of Rotimi’s characterization of God – unapologetically Black and queer – as a means to set a benchmark as to what kind of power that sort of image carries.
At the risk of spoiling, I’d be remiss not to mention that the show ends with Rotimi angrily reciting a contemporary version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution will Not be Televised”. The title of that poem is so engrained into the public consciousness that its meaning has been all-but-forgotten (perhaps intentionally). Those of us old enough to remember the ‘90s clearly will recall when overrated rapper KRS-One – known for his criticism of commercialization and prone to calling other rappers “sell outs” – sold out and rewrote Scott-Heron’s poem to sell Nikes. Rotimi’s version restores the “scorched Earth” intention of the original, lashing out at everyone from Mark Zuckerberg and Ellen Degeneres to Michelle Obama, Black Panther, and self-important hashtagtivists.
If the show has any one flaw, it’s that the narrative suggested by the opening scene is dropped a bit too easily. Rotimi-the-Character trying to make it in showbiz is probably something to be saved for a proper autobio show that goes longer than an hour, but after we see the character interact with rude New Yorkers and an indifferent agent, one can’t help but want to see the end. (In a way, it’s the polar opposite of Luna Malbroux’s How to Be a White Man, which – mostly – stuck to narrative, but lack any coherent focus.) Still, the show is no less entertaining in the sketch-heavy approach it takes. Whether Manifesto truly inspires a call to arms remains to be seen, but its status as a thrilling showcase for one of the Bay Area’s best performers is something no one can debate.
Manifesto is scheduled to run until the 15th of February in the Brava Studio at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.