You might think any show that begins on a slave ship would have nowhere to go but down. But when Daniel Beaty appears on one at the very start of Emergence-See!, his acclaimed solo show that's now found a berth at The Public Theater, all bets are off. His singing an ethereal spiritual in a richly resonant baritone jolts you to attention with the possibility that this show might take you places others of its ilk would never dare.
That it maintains enough individuality to glitter prominently in a crowded month of openings is a tribute to Beaty's writing and performing talents. But that it never transcends its roots to become enlightening theatre is the sad result of the huge gap between talented and gifted which Beaty, for all he does right, never quite crosses. That prevents the otherwise enormously engaging Emergence-See! from fully capturing the mind or the heart.
In a year that's already given us Sarah Jones in Bridge & Tunnel (which played Broadway in the spring) and Nilaja Sun in No Child (which is still running Off-Broadway), there's been no shortage of accomplished characterological collages illuminating a certain idea or ideal. Any glut in the market, however, can always make way for a fine new offering, and Beaty's expansive examination of what it means to be black would seem right in keeping with Sun's look at the New York school system and Jones's critique of America as the world's melting pot.
But lacking Jones's world-class chameleonic impersonation abilities and Sun's wryly original sense of comedy and dramatic structure, Emergence-See! feels more like a retread than a groundbreaker. Though he morphs into some 44 New Yorkers whose otherwise ordinary day is shattered by the appearance of a centuries-old slave ship anchored near the Statue of Liberty, Beaty unveils very few human souls.
His portrayals of the reporters, police, and assorted onlookers in this three-ring media circus don't want for variety, but all seem to defy their involved words and cower beneath a blanket of disinterest. If the cranky old women who remember the decades before the Civil Rights Movement and the wide-eyed teenagers who've never known life without it never look or sound alike as Beaty conceives them, they eventually come to feel alike, making this about the most inert New York imaginable.
Beaty counters this somewhat by focusing on two young brothers, Rodney and Freddie, who embark on a desperate chase to rescue their despondent father, Reginald, after he climbs aboard the slave ship. There, Reginald meets the spirit of an African chief, Chief Kofi, who forces him to embrace the racial realities he's tried to ignore ever since his wife was murdered by a drug addict. What Reginald learns, and what he'll pass down to Rodney and Freddie, is the play's not-insubstantial emotional spine.
As long as Beaty focuses on these concerns, the play detours from its disaffected, documentary course and more effectively charts the confused spectrum of experiences of those who have suffered from racism. Beaty presents a Rodney and Freddie that are heavily grounded, almost pedantically real; Reginald and Chief Kofi, while no less honest, are considerably more theatrical. But they all inhabit the real world and the real New York in a way the more dazzlingly played participants don't: Those people keep you consistently smiling and laughing, but they never get under your skin.
It's that visceral immediacy that's missing in Emergence-See! and Beaty's curiously refined performance. Jones, Sun, and other masters of the solo form generally possess a dangerous edge that enhances the illusion they create of precariously balancing a fragile collection of plots and personalities; when they pull it off, the result is even more elating. But rather than forcing you out of your personal comfort zone, Beaty escorts you into his, creating an evening that often warms but never thrills. The careful direction by Kenny Leon, the fine historical-fusion unit set by Beowulf Boritt, Michael Chybowski's probing lighting, and Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV's shivering sound can't change that.
Nor can Beaty's attempts to tap into youthful relevance by instituting a poetry-slam subplot that needs Rodney to be at a certain club at a certain time to compete for the title of "Grand Slam Champion." This allows Beaty the chance for more impersonations, as well as the opportunity to show off his impressive singing and rhyming skills. The various poets who step to competition microphone all meditate on what it means to them to be black, much as Jones's Bridge & Tunnel characters spoke of their own American experiences at the poetry evening that gave that show its framework.
Beaty vanishes into each of the young slammers just as convincingly as he does every other character, but doesn't firmly place them in the larger contexts of the Rodney-Freddie-Reginald or slave ship stories at Emergence-See!'s spiritual center. Then again, as Beaty has named the slave ship Remembrance, subtext and subtlety are probably unwelcome on his allegorical shopping list.