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REVIEW: ‘Barrington Stage’s ‘America v. 2.1’ lets politics get in the way of character

Playwright Rose’s view, authentic and passionate though it be, is so relentlessly angry and uniformly cynical that the satire gets suffocated.

America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro
By Stacey Rose
Choreographed by Kevin Boseman
Directed by Logan Vaughn

Stacey Rose’s “America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro” is set in some dystopian, white-propaganda theme park (or convention center or such) where four enslaved African-Americans perform a minstrel-style industrial show that instructs white audiences how Blacks themselves, not whites and their racism, killed civil rights and annihilated Blacks.

Ansa Akyea, Peterson Townsend and Kalyne Coleman in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

The opening number, cleverly choreographed with a nod to “The Scottsboro Boys” and a wink to Fosse’s “Cabaret,” gives way to four skits of revisionist African-American history roughly divided into slavery, emancipation/Reconstruction, civil rights and the modern era. The historical figures that appear are a mix of pro- and anti-civil rights, white and black: Lincoln (of course), a figure called the King Dr. Martin Jesse Jackson (a hybrid of Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson), William Clanton Bosby, Donald Reagan (guess which Donald) and Baracka Saddam Osama. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

Playwright Rose’s view, authentic and passionate though it be, is so relentlessly angry and uniformly cynical that the satire gets suffocated. Actor Ansa Akyea, who plays leader of the troupe, breaths some relief into the intermissionless 90 minutes with amusing interpretations of Reagan, Clinton and Obama. But Rose seems so focused on her own personal views of Black history that politics gets in the way of character, even in the face of real tragedy that faces some of the troupe.

There’s a new crop of talented African-American writers who have used U.S. racist history and its legacy to create vital, character-driven works: Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”), Aziza Barnes (“BLKS”) and Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”) to name just a few. Their stories transact effectively on the basis of empathy for their characters. In “America v. 2.1” it seems like characters are merely vessels of the playwright’s political axe to grind, no matter how legitimate.

Huge credit goes to Barrington Stage Company for nurturing playwrights like Rose, providing a platform for their voices, and conducting community outreach and presenting talkbacks (after every evening performance in the case of “America v. 2.1”), especially on the topic of racism today. That’s all good. But as a piece of drama, “America v 2.1” isn’t.

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America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro plays on Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage in the Lee and Sydelle Blatt Center for the Arts at 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, June 30. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org.

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