Friday, April 10, 2009

Angela's Mixtape

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Eisa Davis was born on May 5th, 1971, Karl Marx’s birthday, and you can bet her macrobiotic, anti-capitalist mother never let her forget it. As a baby, she was taken to visit her unjustly imprisoned aunt, Angela Davis. Caught up in rebellion from birth, her identity has been used as a tool, and that brings us to the present, her need to remix her memoir, asking “With the shame of fame, on the blame terrain, how do I live up to my name?” But 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 (it’s well below the 100 BPM it needs). Within the play, Eisa recounts how her mother made her perform political monologues from Angela’s autobiography; though she’s grown into a talented actress (with a terrific voice) and performing her own autobiography, it's still just as performed.

Much of this stems from Eisa’s choice to share the stage with other actors: “Mom (Kim Brockington), Grandma (Denise Burse), Auntie (Linda Powell), and Cuz (Ayesha Ngaujah) are here to help me with my lines,” she sings. There’s nothing wrong with getting help to tell a memoir if you use it to spark confrontation (look at Lisa Kron’s Well), but Eisa does the opposite by putting other people front and center and allowing the comedy (oh that bubbly Ngaujah and her lessons on gospel and hip-hop) to be the only mood. 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. (This is the polar opposite of April Yvette Thompson’s solo show, Liberty City.)

This isn’t to say that Angela’s Mixtape isn’t personal, though: her childhood perspective on Reagan’s “liberation” of Grenada is quite different from the government’s anti-Cuba spin, and she does struggle to find herself in school: “I am the saddest, happiest, and most creative I have ever been,” she exclaims at one point. However, when visits with Chuck D and Toni Morrison are condensed to ten-second scenes, it seems more like showing off than actually showing, and though it’s clear that the actress Eisa has changed from her experiences in Africa, you can’t tell from her three-minute trip there in the play. That’s one of the problems with mixtapes—they’ve often got a whole other history built in for the intended listener, and Angela’s Mixtape is meant for her family.

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