So, not only are you a young African American woman searching for identity in Berkeley, California, with a granola chewing, enlightened mom, while all your friends live in the-significantly-less-enlightened Oakland; your aunt is also the legendary Civil Rights activist Angela Davis. Oh, and you’re named after her too. Good luck. No wonder Eisa Davis spends so much of her dynamic, exuberantly autobiographical play, Angela’s Mixtape, listening to the radio.
Presented by New Georges and the Hip Hop Theater Festival, Angela’s Mixtape tracks Eisa’s journey into womanhood through a rich tapestry of music – sometimes sung, sometimes recorded. This is her “mixtape” of human experience, a sort-of thesis proposal for her collegiate aunt to see if Eisa measures up to the strong Davis women who reared her. As in the best hip-hop, Ms. Davis samples influences as varied as Marx, Debussy, and Back to the Future in her pursuit of self.
And does Davis’s “tape” make the cut? Absolutely. A sharp, unifying staging from director Liesl Tommy imbues Davis’s bouncy narrative with the perfect rhythm. Eisa’s questions about fitting in, classifying her race to friends, and later, wrestling with her family legacy, mature naturally in the story and are often punctuated with harmonic bits of a capella singing. Music, Davis proves, keeps time superbly.
Davis, who was recently on Broadway in Passing Strange, might have trouble surmounting that intertext, since Mixtape covers a lot of the same ground. Race, family, and music figure heavily into both pieces, but Davis’s script carries a potent political charge and draws an interesting conclusion about art as activism. Where Passing Strange was content to be a fun ride from adolescence to adulthood, Mixtape’s protagonist emerges from her larval stage actualized and equipped to take on social injustice, like her aunt did in the seventies.
Only one aspect felt self-indulgent – a scene near the end when Eisa directly asks Aunt Angela if she has lived up to her name. Eisa’s struggle with this is discreetly transmitted quite well throughout the play, but something short circuits in the blunt stating of it. Suddenly we see Eisa, the playwright asking for approval, as opposed to Eisa the character, which puts audiences in an uncomfortable position.
But any minor discomfort will be worth it, because Ms. Davis is a joy to watch otherwise. Deftly communicating a wide range of ages and intents throughout, she truly feels at home amid Clint Ramos’s beautiful light-boxes, photographs and scenic design. Dancing or sulking, she attacks every action with copious amounts of energy. In a particularly affecting moment, Eisa decides to describe herself as mixed-race to schoolmates, and her immediate reaction of both relief and heartbreak is intensely honest.
Kim Brockington, Denise Burse, Ayesha Ngaujah, and Linda Powell provide fine support for Davis in a number of roles, usually distinguished by smart costume triggers from designer Jessica Jahn. Only Ngaujah occasionally eluded recognition, when swapping between Eisa’s stepsister and cousin. Powell, as Angela, has an unenviable task, as her legendary character is talked about for much of the play. But Powell plays it cool and subdued, allowing our knowledge of her activist days to fill in any blanks. Brockington and Burse as Mom and Grandma both give very genuine, fully rounded performances.
Angela’s Mixtape is an intricate compilation of influences, full of music and meaning, of heart and heritage. From collections like these, our lives gain perspective. Sometimes these tracks need to be lined up and properly ordered before you can make sense of them.