Coming off their successful May run of “Twelfth Night,” founder Marcia-Eppich Harris’s Southbank Theatre Company continues to make its presence known as an exciting new addition to the Indy theatre landscape. Showing flair once again, the neophyte group presents “Marie Antoinette & The Magical Negroes,” its final inaugural season offering, at Fonseca Theatre Company through June 26. I attended a 4:00 p.m. performance on Saturday.
I was predisposed toward liking the play, because I had previously profiled Terry Guest, the Chicago playwright who wrote the work. Plus, I had given another of his plays, “The Magnolia Ballet,” presented at Phoenix Theatre in March, a favorable review. I purposely avoided researching “Marie Antoinette” because I wanted to see it with a fresh perspective. Happily, I was not disappointed. Seeing this play only reinforced my belief that Guest will one day be regarded as a preeminent voice in the American theatre.
History is a passion of former educator Eppich-Harris, thus the appeal of Guest’s provocative work that is set during the French Revolution (1789-1799) and is centered on its central figure Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, who falls victim to the guillotine by her subjects who hate and revile her for her excesses. Guest cleverly juxtaposes her story and husband’s, Louis XVI, with that of American History and the Black actors, called “Magical Negroes” who are part of her story. It is a term, using the archaic “negroes,” made popular by Black filmmaker Spike Lee. The designation, according to Eppich-Harris’s program notes, is “a term describing the film trope of using Black people as loving, inspirational, or wise characters that aid and support white protagonists almost – or in fact, magically.” In the play, the Black actors are called “the tribe” and each recounts annals of the Black experience including the Haitian Rebellion, Ferguson protests and the murder of George Floyd. The actors flip the film trope when they represent white historical figures such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Napoleon and others.
Guest, whose diverse inspiration range from Stephen Sondheim to Tennessee Williams to Black Queer People to Whitney Houston, is a master of language and satire, mixing modern and historic references with panache. In this piece, though disturbing, its themes of rebellion, resistance, rage and revolution are presented in a manner that is both raw and entertaining.
Actor Kelli Mills, who impressively directed “Marie Antoinette,” does not appear to have any previous directing credits if the printed program is accurate. However, based on what I witnessed she has a promising future working in a field in which BIPOC theatre artists are crucially underrepresented, certainly locally, but also on a national level as well.
Turning in strong, affecting performances was a cast of accomplished actors, many of whom I have not seen previously in mainstream productions but hope to see more frequently on local stages. They included Ron Perkins (Jim Crow), Bra’Jae’ Allen (Sambo), Kelly Thomas (Mammy), Anila Akua (Sapphire), Tommy Gray III (Savage), Haley Glickman (Marie Antoinette) and Josh Cornell (King Louis XVI).
Eppich-Harris, the show’s producer, assembled an outstanding team consisting of set designer Kristopher D. Steege, costume designer Anthony James Sirk, lighting designer Pamela Albrecht, and composer Fores Liggens, whose superlative talents merged to create a vivid, flamboyant feast for the eyes and ears.
In the wake of the social unrest and racial reckoning that has unfolded during the past several years, it is encouraging to see the results of the ensuing activism, making it possible for a playwright such as Guest, to be produced by a forward-looking company such as Southbank, and presented in the theatre founded by Bryan Fonseca, who dedicated his life to giving voice to the marginalized. It is not a stretch to suggest that “Marie Antoinette & The Magical Negroes,” is a timely artistic collaboration that bodes well for social change and the need for equity for all.
For tickets and information about “Marie Antoinette & The Magical Negroes,” which continues through June 26, visit southbanktheatre.org