UPDATED: April 7, 2016, at 2:02 a.m.
One often views performances for the enjoyment, taking away a pleasant feeling of satisfaction and perhaps a few themes incorporated by the writers. However, it is less common to see a play that grapples with serious issues in a way that is intended not for the pure entertainment of viewers but for the edification of the audience and the expression of the actors, writers, and directors. The Harvard Black Community and Student Theater’s latest production, “Black Magic,” which runs from April 1 to 9 at the Loeb Mainstage, is one such extraordinary play that wrestles with the topics of racism, homosexuality, and gender identity with raw and real emotion.
Directed by Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16 and written entirely by Harvard students, “Black Magic” is mainly the story of five Harvard students: Amari (Caleb M. Lewis ’17), Eli (Louis K. Aghanwa ’18), CJ (Tatiana DuBose-Butler '14), Syd (Ogechi Obed ’19), and Anika (Peryn Reeves-Darby ’18). Their everyday lives may seem familiar, but they present new opportunities to explore the feelings and experiences associated with being black at Harvard. The play approaches issues from a variety of viewpoints, with Amari learning about Harvard and romance for the first time, Eli trying to fix his strained relationship with his father, CJ and Syd dealing with the difficulties of harassment and the judgment of others, and Anika attempting to write for The Crimson about issues of race while staying true to herself. Although the “Black Table” is clearly surrounded by the same paintings one sees in Annenberg Hall, situating the play at Harvard, students in the play face the much broader issues of police violence and white privilege. Rather than shy away from these topics, the play bravely shows the feelings of the characters, whether it be crippling fear, resentment, anger, or hopelessness.
With a plot that directly deals with painful topics, the play requires actors who can express emotion in a way that is both realistic and truly raw. The play’s main actors rise to that challenge, providing a performance not only filled with authentic suffering but also representing multi-faceted human beings whose lives are filled with the joys of love and friendship as well as sadness. This is particularly true of DuBose-Butler’s portrayal of CJ and Lewis’s portrayal of Amari. DuBose-Butler delivers a powerful performance as CJ, a comedian, who uses the pronoun “they”. Many times outright hilarious, DuBose-Butler does a careful job of not letting comedy trivialize the serious issues her character faces; while comedy may be an important part of CJ’s life, it does not detract from the stalking, harassment, and judgment they have to endure as a black comedian. CJ’s frustration leads them to quit, but the love and support of others hope for a better future eventually sustains them.
In contrast to DuBose-Butler’s performance, which channels the disillusionment of years of maltreatment, Lewis’s portrayal of Amari begins optimistically. As a freshman, Amari is still learning about the routine racism many black Americans have to endure. He is portrayed as alternating between extreme enthusiasm and anger as he sees injustices in the world around him, but thanks to Lewis’s performance, rather than appearing forced, Amari’s feelings and behavior seem natural. Inhabiting a well-written character, Lewis is able to use this natural dichotomy to bring out his own natural acting style.
“Black Magic” gives black characters the space and depth so often denied to them. It is a reflection of life—and this fact is precisely what makes it so poignant. It is an experience that should not be missed.
—Staff writer Marianne T. Aguilar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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