The Black History Museum… According to the USA

Tabatha Gayle, Marcia Berry and Langston Darby portray black and white variations of America's founding fathers in Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative's production of Zoey Martinson's The Black History Museum... According to the United States of America at HERE. Original photo by Paula Court.
Is there anything to learn from this interactive pop-up museum of the black experience?

By Andrew Andrews

If you visit African Burial Ground National Monument, it quickly becomes apparent that southern plantation owners weren’t the only ones to use slave labor—in fact, most of colonial New York was built by slaves, and most of them were black.

The Black History Museum… According to the United States of America transforms all of HERE into an immersive, highly-interactive “museum” to convey the historical experience of black Americans over more than two hundred years.

This two-hour performance leads participants from the founding fathers’ hypocrisy about slavery, through emancipation, to the Civil Rights era and Black Power movements and beyond.

Occasional pauses in the action allow visitors to explore exhibits and installations, with plenty to read and observe about the experiences of specific individuals and the community at large.

At the beginning of the performance, a “magical mulatto” named Jasper Sasparilla presents the audience with “Honorary Black Cards” and announces the ground rules to temporarily share in the black experience for the duration of the show.

Through audience participation, you’ll get an artistically-tempered, often darkly comical taste of how it might have felt to attend a slave auction, convert to Christianity, and decide what action to take when confronted with opportunities for advancement in society that are literally and figuratively often “one step forward, two steps back.”

The amount of effort that’s gone into this production is a bit astounding for its price. The entirety of the venue has been transformed, with some areas every bit as good as an actual museum, and others more resembling an amusement-type atmosphere.

It’s obvious that a ton of research has gone into the exhibits as well as the stories, with the result being completely entertaining and not feeling the least bit like a lecture or a diatribe.

The multi-disciplinary performers are all extremely talented, and the costumes have been carefully-crafted to balance historical accuracy, whimsy and just the right amount of stereotyping to make subtle points about bigotry.

Although the piece felt a bit slow at times and there were a few minor slips here and there, what most impressed me about this show is the tremendous level of audience engagement, which far exceeds that of most other so-called “immersive” experiences. And though participants are divided up for much of the performance, it seems the groups simply take different paths through the same environment, so there’s no need to worry about missing something that happened to another pack but not your own.

5

Andrew Andrews attended The Black History Museum… According to the USA at HERE Arts Center in New York on Thursday, November 7, 2019 @ 5:00pm to write this review.

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