Three-year-old Tajmere Clark died an unnatural death on a recent Sunday. While on a drunken rampage, a crazed gunman shot and killed the African-American toddler in her East New York home. When Melvin Van Peebles wrote his 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death: Tunes From Blackness, he must have hoped that things would be different by 2006. No such luck. Two days before the Brooklyn shooting, Van Peebles stood in the back of the club T New York in Midtown. There, the Classical Theater of Harlem is reviving his Broadway musical for a rapacious city where black citizens still die unnaturally every day. Yet in spite of the topical title, the production feels more like a parody of a Fat Albert episode than a social commentary on urban violence and struggle.
The characters are Shaft-era stereotypes, including pimps, prostitutes, bag ladies, drug dealers, and cops. Or, more specifically, "Fatso," "Big Titties," "The Dyke," and "Sweet Daddy," among others. Interestingly, Van Peebles penned Ain't Supposed to Die at the same time he was working on Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which has been called the first "blaxploitation" film. The connection between the two is undeniable.
The production takes place in a nightclub where audience members sit at banquettes surrounding the dance floor, at bistro tables in the middle of the floor, and in a balcony overlooking it. The actors climb over and around the audience and play off of the people seated closest to the center. Two-for-one drink tickets can be purchased at the box office window, so you can sip your Tanqueray and tonic while watching street violence re-enacted near, or sometimes on, your table.
Songs ranging from "Lily Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail" to "Come Raising Your Leg on Me" remind the audience that Van Peebles may have been less concerned with racial equality than with having a good time. (He did perform the hardcore sex scenes in Sweet Sweetback himself.)
Alfred Preisser directs for thrills here, mostly at the expense of the female cast members. Violence against women and forced prostitution is as serious today as it was 35 years ago. Instead of using the vicious and the exploitative to provoke disgust and dialogue, Preisser allows the pole dancing, sexual assaults, beatings, and draggings to continue for so long in so many scenes that one wonders if he is disgusted by these acts or intrigued by them. (Judging by the faces of some men in the audience, it may have been the latter.)
Van Peebles's songs rival Lenny Kravitz's for repetition. Most consist of one line repeated over and over. (The show is touted as a precursor to choreopoem, spoken word, and rap, so three cheers for evolution.) The cast is dedicated and energetic but lacks any real vocal power. The opening song, "It Just Don't Make No Sense," is sung almost entirely off-key. John-Andrew Morrison, as an unemployed man who sings "Mirror Mirror on the Wall," is one of the better vocalists, however.
The singers get no help from the orchestra because this live musical doesn't have one. The score is pre-recorded and played by DJs in a booth overlooking the club floor. Visual aspects make up for aural sloppiness. Some costumes are fun and playful, like the money-hungry pimp in a light-green leisure suit, while others are spot-on realistic, like the homeless woman (played very convincingly by Kimberlee Monroe) who could have easily been lured into the club from Eighth Avenue.
Ain't Supposed to Die ran on Broadway for nearly a year, from 1971 to 1972; racked up Tony and Grammy Award nominations; and laid the foundation for some of the most important styles in African-American music. This revival should have either made the rowdy relic pertinent to today's issues or simply let it die a natural death.