There are three things that will stick with me from going to see Mark Kendall’s “The Magic Negro” last night at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage. Before the show, I found a stack of stickers in men’s room that said “Be patient, Atlanta! We’re all in it together.” and had a picture of an I-85 sign. Secondly, the existential depth of cookies and the fact that my companion for the evening totally scored some cookies. And, finally, that I was awarded and then denied an Oscar for my part in the show. I’d probably feel better if it went to “Moonlight” because everything about that movie is amazing, but it went to some random person in the audience, which left me wishing that Kanye West had been there to stand up for me.
The one-person show that Kendall created focused on the Black experience of and response to racism through a series of sketches that ranged from pretty funny to absolutely hilarious. Kendall’s real talent in scripting this was the way that he crafted his endings: he seemed to know just how much he would need to tack on a funny last line to make up for a weaker sketch while also letting stronger sketch stand on their own. It was definitely geared to a metro Atlanta audience, not only with topical humor related to the area – such as a great bit about what would be involved in burglarizing a house in Cobb County using Marta – but also gearing it towards a racially mixed audience that wouldn’t be quite as shy about talking about race as the audience that he might draw in another major city, even keeping in mind that anyone coming to this show would be primed for a discussion of race.
The sketches themselves didn’t really make any real accusations against White people as a general population in a position of political and economic majority. It mostly focused, as I said, on trying to get the realities of the Black experience across to people through humor. There was a slight break in the format of the show where Kendall gave a frank talk about how he wasn’t sure if this was the best medium to express what he was trying to get across and that he wasn’t sure what the solution was. This was rather poignant and moving and, I think, eliminated any possibility of someone coming out of the show with the wrong message as so many often do with racial humor (e.g. the majority of “All in the Family” viewers relating more to the character of Archie Bunker than anyone else in the show). I also think that he did a good job of fitting it into the show.
Overall, I was impressed that he pulled off nearly 90 minutes on the stage by himself (with a few moments of audience participation). His copious charisma and delightful sense of humor seemed to keep everyone engaged through to the end. While he didn’t quite manage to solve racism, he did open up a more comfortable space for people to talk about it. My only complaint is that nobody else seemed compelled to sing along to the “Reading Rainbow” theme with me.