The ambitious Foundry Theatre has chosen an ideal location for its production of W. David Hancock’s two-character drama Master. The design of Brooklyn’s Irondale Center, a former worship and religious-education space in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (a gem of 19th-century architecture), strains heavenward with worn ecclesiastical grandeur. It’s an environment likely to put arriving spectators in a reflective mood appropriate for playing their parts as tacit mourners in an immersive performance piece that depicts a memorial service and gallery retrospective honoring James Leroy Clemens.
Clemens, recently deceased at 74, was the proponent and sole practitioner of an artistic movement called Afro-futurism. Known as “Uncle Jimmy,” Clemens is the principal offstage character of Hancock’s play, though his ashes are said to be on-site in one of the art installations in the Irondale’s capacious performing space. On the cover of the production’s playbill (styled as an order of service for this “celebration of a life”), Uncle Jimmy is hailed as “visionary, beloved father and husband,” as well as “artist.”
Upon arrival, audience members are urged to wander among art works ostensibly representing various periods in Uncle Jimmy’s career. As Master proceeds, we learn that much of Uncle Jimmy’s career has been devoted to drawings, paintings, sculpture, and multimedia projects inspired by Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Everything on display at the Irondale Center reflects that inspiration.
The samples of Uncle Jimmy’s oeuvre, arrestingly varied in media and style, are by visual artist Wardell Millan, whose recent photography and works on paper have been exhibited at the Savannah College of Art and Design and New York’s David Nolan Gallery. Millan has collaborated effectively with designers John Narun (video and projections), Marsha Ginsberg (set), and Thomas Dunn (lights) to create an intriguing environment with no real or imaginary barriers between audience and performers.
A central conceit of Master is that Uncle Jimmy is descended from a slave in the household of a forebear of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). The prevailing theme of the works on display is the impact of race on the individual psyche; and this theme is refracted through depictions of Jim, the runaway slave who, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, discovers he’s a free man.
Officiating at Uncle Jimmy’s memorial service is his widow, Edna Finn (Anne O’Sullivan); and the tributes are by Edna and James (Mikeah Ernest Jennings), his son by a previous marriage. Addressing the mourners, Edna and James begin with personal reflections on the dead man’s art; but both eulogies quickly shift focus to the speakers’ recollections of his untidy life and their uneasy relationships with him. From what’s said and unsaid, we get a sense of Uncle Jimmy as a forceful yet emotionally distant husband and father, and an artist frequently distracted by disappointment and outrage at social injustice.
Though Edna (who is white) sets out to praise Uncle Jimmy, her rambling remarks imply that, throughout his career, self-imposed isolation undermined what professional success came his way, soured relations with his family, and left those around him constantly perplexed. In both art and personal life, Edna suggests, “Uncle Jimmy wanted pyrotechnics—so you couldn’t tell if the world was ending, or just beginning. Either we were blasting off or left behind.”
James, the son of Uncle Jimmy’s first wife (who was black), asserts that racist society (including white art dealers and gallery owners) thwarted Jimmy’s ambitions and made him a lifelong outsider. James blames societal bias and racial exclusion for his father’s fractured personality and his alternately loving and abusive parenting.
“My father could be a difficult man,” says James, “but let’s not pretend obscurity was his fault. Dad’s blackness got in the way.”
Under supervision of Taibi Magar, the resourceful director of last season’s much-lauded Underground Railroad Game at Ars Nova, O’Sullivan and Jennings lend intricate emotional detail to Hancock’s lean, provocative script. The upshot is a portrait of a four-member family (the fourth being Paige, deceased daughter of Edna and Uncle Jimmy, half-sister to James) whose story reflects a national heritage of tortured racial relations from the founding of the United States to the present. With the central monologues sensitively performed and reinforced by oddball paintings, sculpture, and found-objects art, Master is a multimedia effort of universal poignancy, with its dark aspects offset by Millan’s visual whimsy and refreshing humor.
Master plays through June 24, at the Irondale Center (85 Oxford St., Brooklyn). Evening performances are 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 pm Wednesday through Saturday (with two performances per day Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday). Matinees are at 5 p.m. Saturday. For tickets, call (212) 777-1444 or visit https://web.ovationtix.com.