The Evolution of Black Music, and a Man’s Soul, in One Show

A Black man in New York City, during the Harlem Renaissance, is hoping for a life without bigotry. This is Harlem after all, a Black enclave, the epicenter of culture and creativity. Here, he’d have an easier time in getting along.

Or so he thought. He soon learns that utopia is an illusion, that racism prevails no matter the location. In the North, he discovers, the racism is subtle: He’s somehow not the right fit for his job, though his supervisor, a white man, says he’s doing well. Others think he’s too uppity, so he is let go.

Distraught, he undergoes a procedure to turn himself white and retreats to Atlanta. There he sees how prejudiced whites speak of Black people when they aren’t in the room: The “n” word is tossed around with the hard “-er.” He soon realizes that his new skin tone can’t save him, either. The life he wants means nothing if he loses his soul along the way.

This is the plot of “Black No More,” a new musical presented by the New Group and inspired by George S. Schuyler’s 1931 novel of the same name. The show, an expansive, Afrofuturistic take on race relations in America now in previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan, is set against an equally vast arrangement of jazz, gospel, R&B, hip-hop and reggae meant to connect the past and present. By using older and newer styles of music, coupled with the protagonist’s struggles to rise above the same discrimination endured today, the show explores how little race relations have progressed.

Jones, far right, working on the show’s choreography with cast members, including Lillias White, center.Credit…Douglas Segars for The New York Times

And it almost didn’t see the light of day.

The screenwriter John Ridley, who wrote the show’s book, was inspired to adapt the story after reading Schuyler’s novel over a decade ago, before he’d written his Oscar-winning adaptation of “12 Years a Slave.” “I read it and was really taken with the wit and unbridled satire,” he said. “So much of the writing was timely and timeless and painful and painless.”

He initially wrote it as a screenplay in 2013, but couldn’t get financing for a sci-fi-inspired film about Black existence. Someone suggested trying to have it produced as a play, but that also proved to be a tough road. Of the stage directors he reached out to, Ridley said that Scott Elliott, the artistic director of the New Group, was the only one who expressed interest. He read the novel and thought it would work best as a musical. “It had the possibility to be an amazing theatrical satire, but with humanity in it, with real people, not like ‘wink-wink satire,’” Elliott said.

There was just one problem: Ridley didn’t like musicals. “I was like, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s OK,” Elliott said. “Let’s go on this journey together and see what happens.” Ridley’s view on musicals changed after meeting with Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of the Roots, and seeing “Hamilton.” He said that show convinced him that musicals can be vehicles for sending a strong message.

They enlisted Trotter, who wrote the lyrics and developed the music with Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters, and the Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of “Hamilton,” owns the commercial rights. And with all the star power (Broadway veterans, including Brandon Victor Dixon, Lillias White and Ephraim Sykes), it seems “Black No More” could very well be destined for Broadway.

John Ridley with the show’s associate director Monet during a recent rehearsal.Credit… Marc. J. Franklin

Among other themes, the show holds up a mirror to those in the Black community who aspire to whiteness. The protagonist, Max Disher (played by Dixon), decides to lighten his skin after meeting a white woman, Helen Givens (Jennifer Damiano), in the Savoy Ballroom during a night out. That he’d be willing to sacrifice his identity after a chance encounter with the woman is a longstanding critique of some Black men: No matter how much they’re supported by Black women, they still see dating white women as the ultimate societal prize.

The musical also delves into the internal baggage that comes with Blackness, the weight of external pressure applied by those who look like you but don’t know your circumstances. How do you stay true to yourself without disappointing your peers? And what does it mean to be real Black anyway?

“For me, the lesson to be learned is that there is a cost,” Dixon said. “There is a cost to the choices we force each other to make to become happy, accepted members of society. It’s time for us to re-examine those costs. Is this the construct in which we can really rise and grow and evolve as a human population?”

“Black No More” begins amicably, with a flurry of Black and white ensemble dancers gliding in unison across the stage, surrounding a barber’s chair used for the skin-altering experiment. Out walks Trotter, who plays Junius Crookman, the doctor performing the procedure. He paints Harlem as a deceptive place where dreams don’t always come true. “You’ll find all things … both high and low,” he says in his opening monologue. “Here where every Black baby must try to grow.”

The music of “Black No More” largely fits this era, smoothly transitioning from swing jazz to big band to soul. Some of the verses have a rap lilt to them — Trotter, after all, is the lead vocalist of the Roots — but his writing here explores a broad range of musical textures, conjuring old Harlem while conveying music’s full spectrum. After Max becomes white, the music becomes softer and more delicate, sounding almost like bluegrass or folkish in a way. Near the end of the show, two white women sing over what sounds like an R&B track, a genre typically associated with Black women. “Black No More” is full of this sort of cross-pollination.

“I’ve always been very big on allowing the universe to sort of write the songs, allowing the material to work itself out,” Trotter said. “These songs represent the different elements of Black music. What we arrived at is something that feels like an education in the evolution of Black music, which, at its core, would be the evolution of American music.”

Tamika Lawrence and Brandon Victor Dixon during a dress rehearsal.Credit…Douglas Segars for The New York Times

The Harlem Renaissance is widely seen as an artistic movement in which Black creators like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Duke Ellington made landmark work. Indeed, the Renaissance helped change how Black people were viewed culturally; from it came a new, fearless creative generation. Yet the Renaissance had its detractors. Some said the literature only catered to whites and the Black middle-class. Even one of Harlem’s most famous establishments — the Cotton Club — was only for whites. “Black No More” demystifies Harlem as a mecca by wrapping its arms around it, wiping off the glitter while celebrating its charm.

“The show, in my mind, is a critique of a critique,” said Jones, who is also choreographing the new Broadway musical “Paradise Square.” “We’re trying to make a musical about a historical novel, but with the point of view of people who are very much products of now. For God’s sake, we are post-George Floyd.”

“Black No More” was originally slated to premiere in October 2020. But then the pandemic shut down theaters, forcing shows to postpone or cancel their runs. And in May 2020, Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by the police officer Derek Chauvin. Protests ensued. Coupled with outcries over the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, these rebellions felt different. The precinct in which Chauvin worked was burned. In New York City, protesters and law enforcement regularly clashed, intensifying the already-strained relationship between certain residents and the police.

Near the end of “Black No More,” over an aggressive rap beat, a white antagonist asserts that Black lives don’t matter, a perceived reference to the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement. Within the context of the musical, he’s upset that his sister got involved with a Black man. Yet the subtle nod acknowledges the cloud of George Floyd hanging over this musical.

“We just happen to be in a space where certain audiences are ready to receive what we’re trying to say, as opposed to pre-2020,” said Tamika Lawrence, who plays Buni Brown, Max Disher’s best friend. “There are certain cultures in America — white cultures, specifically — that I think are now ready to have tough conversations and ready to see this kind of art.”

Trotter concurred. “I think some people may take offense,” he said. “Some people may be appalled, some may take it as a challenge to widen their scope, to tear some of the bandages off these bullet wounds that we deal with as a society.”

“Black No More” is presented with the hope that Black and white people can find common ground somewhere. That we can at least see one another’s differences and be respectful of them.

Just don’t do something drastic like change your skin color. As the musical teaches us, the grass isn’t greener.

“What it says is, ‘Look at yourself, take a look at where we are, take a look at where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” Trotter said of the show. “It speaks to a commonality that we all share as humans, as people, as inhabitants of this planet. I don’t think we’re ever going to exist in perfect harmony, but I think there’s a possibility for us to coexist in peace.”

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