Imagine the shockwaves that would ensue if a slave ship docked at the feet of the Statue of Liberty in present times. Renaissance man Daniel Beaty’s dynamic one-man play “Emergency!,” which landed at the DuSable Museum for two performances this past weekend, attempts to capture that hypothetical moment. Standing alone on a stage set with nothing but a raised platform and two empty chairs, Beaty played 40 characters in rapid succession. In one breath, he was a Republican business executive, angered by the phenomenon of “driving while black.”Â In the next, he was a transgender sex worker, “selling his ass to pay for his boobs.” Beaty’s portrayals are wild exaggerations. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that each persona is more caricature than character, “Emergency!” is a sharp reflection on the diverse truths and woes of modern black life. A sustained subplot about a schizophrenic man who climbs aboard the ship shapes a poignant discussion about the stigma of mental illness. A monologue performed in the voice of a teenage girl explores the realities of coping with HIV. Beaty uses humor skillfully in the exaggerated personas he puts on as a mechanism for critique.The audience’s laughter felt cerebral last Friday, and with each new punch line, another theatergoer leant over to her companion to react to the monologue.
One of the most impressive aspects of “Emergency!” was the way Beaty merged different styles of performance. Characters segued between thoughtful soliloquy, honeyed song, and slam poetry with a speed that could have been distracting, but in this case served only to further illustrate characters’ emotional states. Desperation was delivered in a low, moaning baritone. Anger streamed furiously in the rhythmic beat of spoken word poetry. Some segments were so apparently relatable that it wasn’t uncommon throughout the performance to hear an occasional whoop of affirmation issue from the back rows. Though “Emergency!’s” plot and characters are fantastic, its takeaways are real. Miraculously, all 40 characters’ viewpoints come together in the end to craft a message that spurs viewers to reconsider how they think about their history. “We can overcome,” he said, “if we change the way we see, see our past, see our possibility.”