It may have set some kind of speed record for turning a news event into a theatrical one.
Three months after Ferguson, Mo., became a household name, the city’s unrest over a white police officer’s killing of a black teenager has been incorporated into a play.
Michael Brown’s death is the framing incident of “Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America,” a time-traveling dramatic collage that seeks to locate the Ferguson shooting along a continuum of racial strife in this nation, stretching back to its birth.
That the handiwork of creators Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks is making its debut at the University of Maryland seems extremely apt, as the message-laden performance piece does not decouple successfully from a sense of the pedantic.
As staged in the Kogod Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, “Collidescope” is, however, beautifully designed and conceptually intriguing, at least insofar as its hopscotching narrative seeks with such sweep to illuminate the staying power of racism.
The conceit is that an alien life form, on a visit to Earth, is issuing its report on the alarming propensity of homo sapiens to oppress some of their species by dint of skin color.
Chong and Wilks, working with a 13-member cast of Maryland undergraduates and alumni, have selected a disparate series of events from three centuries for glimpses into how racial hatred has come to burrow so deeply into American consciousness.
In one vignette, Revolutionary hero Patrick Henry’s famous words — “Give me liberty or give me death” — are quoted, with an actor supplying this additional information: “The man who said that owned 78 slaves.”
In another segment, set in Chicago in 1939, a black man (Philip Kershaw) desperate to feed his family resorts to disguising himself as a woman to answer a white couple’s ad for a housekeeper.
In still other scenes, speeches and testimony by renowned activists — Clarence Darrow, Fannie Lou Hamer and James Baldwin among them — are re-created, to dramatize the insidious reach of racist practices — into the justice system, the political system, our nation’s social fabric.
A few of the episodes have the desired dramatic flair: As Baldwin, Moriamo Akibu, a senior theater performance major, is riveting, skillfully channeling both the writer’s genius and rage, and Korinn Walfall, a junior, gives a potent account of Hamer, speaking on behalf of dissident Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The ensemble, too, is compellingly deployed in a sequence at a period cotillion, when cast members are paired up with no attention paid to race or gender — black actors play white women, men dance with men, women dance with women.
Too often, however, the piece’s extended dramatic interludes come across as static and, over the course of 21 / 2 hours, thematic overkill. Anyone familiar with the cable-channel discourse in this country will find little surprising in the points the proceedings seek to make. (Oddly, too, no part of “Collidescope” dwells in a concerted way on our president, who figures so prominently in discussions of a “post-racial” America.)
Ferguson is the first and last subject conjured by the play, in a prologue in which a young man’s body is covered by an orange tarp and in an epilogue devised as a memorial to Brown. The linkage is clear but, for the purposes of theater, too facile.
Still, were I a student, I wouldn’t mind being required to attend “Collidescope.” Lydia Francis’s set — a sterile tiled chamber, onto which Ian McClain’s electronic images and captions are projected — provides Chong and Wilks with a versatile platform. Kara Waala’s costumes — color-blocked in shades of gray — add to the illusion of a reenactment by another world. Overall, it’s as cool a history lecture as a college kid can ever expect.
Created and directed by Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks. Lighting, Max Doolittle; sound, Jeffrey Dorfman; movement, Leslie Felbain. With Riley Bartlebaugh, Olivia Brann, Summer Brown, Joseph Graf, Weilong Li, Kyle Travers, Christopher Walkup, Aidan Walsh, Vaughn Midder and James Skaggs. About 21 / 2 hours. Tickets: $10-$25. Through Friday at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Md. Call 301-405-2787 or visit theclarice.umd.edu.