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Why ‘Black No More’ is calling out everyone — and why you need to see it

February 8, 2022 by Diep Tran
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Black No More
From left: Leanne Antonio, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tariq Trotter, and Oneika Phillips in Black No More. (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

A machine that promises to solve America’s race problem by turning Black people into white people. This sounds like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie. But it’s actually the topic of Black No More, a new musical based on a 1931 satiric novel by George S. Schuyler.

Black No More is currently running off Broadway until February 27 at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, in a production by the New Group. Get Black No More tickets on TodayTix, or get Black No More Rush tickets.

Brandon Victor Dixon plays the main character, Max Disher, who elects to step into the machine and turns himself white. Dixon, whose credits include Hamilton on Broadway and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC, said he read the novel after he got the offer to be in the musical.

“I found the novel to be quite searing in its analysis of social, political, and economic culture, with respect to race and patriarchy,” Dixon said. “I find that the commentary, while written in 1931, was incredibly relevant and highly specific to our current social-political circumstances.”

That is quite an assessment. Below, here are some other reasons why you need to see Black No More.

Get tickets to Black No More off Broadway on TodayTix.

Black No More is a seminal work of Afrofuturism.

Black No More is one of the first works of Afrofuturism, which is a genre of music, visual arts, literature, and film. The biggest theme of Afrofuturism is to explore African American identity and how it intersects with technology. Other notable works of Afrofuturism include Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower, the Marvel film Black Panther, and Janelle Monáe’s album Dirty Computer.

The musical’s creators are icons in their field.

It takes some big names to adapt such a big story like Black No More. The musical originally began as a film script by John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for the film 12 Years a Slave). Ridley could not get financing for an African American sci-fi film, so he decided to shop it around as a play. Stage director Scott Elliott was the only one who said yes to Black No More.

Elliott runs the New Group, which is known for producing adventurous works off Broadway — the world premiere of Avenue Q, which went on to an acclaimed run on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Musical, premiered with the company. Elliott is directing the musical version of Black No More, and he suggested the story should be a musical.

This is where two-time Grammy winner Tariq Trotter comes in. Trotter is also known as Black Thought, and he is the co-founder of the famed band The Roots. Trotter said yes to the project and wrote the lyrics to the songs for Black No More and co-wrote the music with Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Tony winner Daryl Waters. Trotter also performs in the musical as Dr. Junius Crookman, who creates the Black No More machine.

Rounding out this impressive creative team is famed choreographer Bill T. Jones, who co-created the Broadway musical Fela! and is the co-founder of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Dixon admits that in Black No More, he’s dancing more than he ever had, thanks to Jones. (There’s even a moment where the dancers throw him in the air.)

“[Bill’s] choreography is challenging, particularly because dancing, choreo, is not my primary creative medium,” said Dixon. “Bill thinks of creation as problem solving. Bill kind of throws himself into meeting those challenges head-on, to see what problems we can solve, what new problems we can discover and where those things can lead us. So it is a different process than what I’ve worked with before.”

Black No More
Brandon Victor Dixon and Tariq Trotter in Black No More. (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Black No More has a powerhouse cast.

The Black No More cast is full of bonafide Broadway stars. Dixon is a Tony-winning producer and two-time Tony Award nominee.

The cast also includes Tony winner Lillias White (whose Broadway credits are legendary and include Dreamgirls, Fela!, and most recently Chicago as Mama Morton), Ephraim Sykes (Ain’t Too Proud, for which he was nominated for a Tony), and Jennifer Damiano (who was nominated for a Tony for Next to Normal).

Then there is Trotter, who regularly plays for live audiences worldwide and with The Roots as the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Trotter also knows something about musicals: He sang a song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! film. In Black No More, Trotter plays Dr. Crookman, who narrates the show and creates the Black No More machine.

“What’s been great about Tariq is that even though this is not his natural creative environment, he does have a very powerful instinct towards theatricalization and emotional storytelling,” said Dixon. “And on top of that, Tariq is the kind of artist who wants information: ‘Tell me about the medium. Tell me what works here and what doesn’t work here as a writer, as an actor, as a performer.’”

”He is brilliant,” Dixon added.

Black No More was kind of inspired by Hamilton and has similar Broadway aspirations.

Ridley initially didn’t think Black No More could be a musical, and he doesn’t actually like musicals. That all changed when Ridley saw Hamilton, and according to The New York Times, Miranda’s show convinced him that musicals could tell a complex story with a strong message.

Aside from having former Hamilton cast members Dixon and Sykes, Black No More has something else in common with the Founding Fathers musical: Jeffrey Seller, who produced Hamilton, is also a producer on Black No More. The show may be off Broadway now, but it’s no secret that Black No More has Broadway in its sights.

Black No More
Ephraim Sykes and the Harlem Ensemble in Black No More. (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

The music is modern and diverse.

The music of Black No More showcases the music history of the United States in the 20th century. The genres include jazz, gospel, soul, reggae, R&B, and rap. While that may seem sonically disjointed, Dixon says that it all flows together so well that it’s easy for him to sing.

“The music and the lyrics and the orchestrations are the crown jewel of our production,” he said. “​​I think Tariq’s choices for the types of musical genres that he wants to play with — and then the ability of his collaborators, people like the veteran Daryl Waters, to create a musical palette for the entirety of the show — it’s made it easy for us as artists.”

Black No More is relevant to right now.

In Black No More, when Max becomes white, he realizes that it does not make his life easier in the ways that he had hoped. He soon finds himself ensnared in a white supremacist organization, and the only way he can truly prove his whiteness, and make money, is by spreading a bigoted ideology.

In Black No More, racism is spread not just because of hatred, but because there is a financial motivation for it — appealing to the hatred in white people and giving them someone to blame for their misfortunes is more profitable than appealing to their better angles.

And it maintains the hegemony of rich, white men. Or as Dixon puts it, “There’s gold in them there hills.”

To the actor, Black No More is also about how everyone is complicit in maintaining the racial constructs in America — not just the white racists, but also characters like Lillias White’s Madame Sissereta, who makes money selling skin lightening creams, or Max himself, who believes that upward mobility means assimilating into whiteness.

“We all have a part to play in the matrix in which we are all living,” said Dixon. It’s this complex answer to what upholds white supremacy that makes Black No More as relevant today as it was in 1931.

“I hope the audience takes from the show the necessity of reexamining how we live with each other, to reexamine the social constructs that we have agreed to participate in, and to reexamine the costs of journeying to find ourselves in it—and forcing others to journey to find themselves in — what are artificial constructs of race and patriarchy and commerce,” said Dixon. “I hope that people leave the show asking questions about our world, our social constructs, and the cost of continuing to live in them without evolution or change.”