That old Black ‘Magic’

By John Lyle Belden

The term “Magical Negroes” was popularized by celebrated film director Spike Lee as a critique of how non-white characters were still being used in movies just as they had been in stories throughout history. The trope has its roots in racism and the historic identification of the “other” as something different than regular humanity – when not a lesser-than, such as “lazy” stereotypes, they ironically become stronger, wiser, or actually magical compared to the Whites around them, with their sole purpose in the story to help the “normal” protagonist to win the day. Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Bagger in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” are cited as prime examples, as well as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” and even Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae in “Ghost.” Note how Hollywood has rewarded such roles with Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Black queer playwright Terry Guest can’t help but mess with old tropes, revealing the much older, darker and more powerful magic that lies beneath. Southbank Theatre Company presents Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes,” directed by Kelly Mills. Just as arguably the White majority distorts history, a “Tribe” of embodied Black stereotypes twists it back the other way. “This is not history!” the troupe declares, but between their prism and the one we were exposed to in school, maybe we’ll see the light of truth.

Marie (Haley Glickman) and her husband King Louis XVI (Josh Cornell) of France were actual historical figures. Remembered unkindly, they weren’t necessarily evil, just very spoiled and inept. If anyone could use a dark-skinned savior, it’s these two – but magic doesn’t necessarily work that way.

The Tribe are: carefree Jim Crow (Ron Perkins), crafty Sambo (Bra’Jae’ Allen), nurturing Mammy (Kellli Thomas), ambitious Sapphire (Anila Akua), and aggressive Savage (Tommy Gray III). Being timeless, they hop around the time stream a bit, so we see the Crow in President Kennedy or the Mammy in Ida B. Wells. In the Court of Versailles, Mammy is Marie’s faithful lady-in-waiting and fellow noble Anna de Noailles; Sambo is Anna’s lady-in-waiting Charlotte, a put-upon servant aching to join the protests outside; Sapphire is Catherine, the idealist who believes she can rise thought the palace ranks and effect change from the inside; and Crow is Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, in love with the Queen and seeking to aid her escape.

The magic here is subtle, though the cast did get some tips and a couple of props from local magician Taylor Martin. More important than a couple of visual tricks, there is the spirit of Mother Africa, and when the Tribe dances and turns – well, don’t be surprised if someone loses their head.

Glickman is exceptional in giving the many sides of a figure misunderstood even in her own day, from the child bride to the woman in a gilded cage. Marie didn’t actually say, “let them eat cake,” but she very well could have – a sentiment more borne of cluelessness than disdain. In an ironic reversal of the Black characters lacking depth or backstory, poor Louis is the most two-dimensional character in the piece, but Cornell does a good job of expressing the monarch’s constant frustration with his job and the lack of respect his hard work (in his view) gets.

The Tribe members each work outward from their archetypes to give us persons rather than caricatures – an antidote to the overdone stereotypes where they’re usually found. Thomas as Mammy/Anne isn’t just being motherly and wise for its own sake, or Marie’s; she wants to save her own life as well. Perkins as Crow/Axel isn’t self-sacrificing, either, showing genuine concern as he presents a way out, but with a price. Allen exudes the only-taking-so-much-of-this attitude, and when the dust is finally settled, trickster Sambo has the last surprise. In other eras, Akua brings the Haitian Revolution to life, and Gray reminds us, for any who still haven’t gotten the message, that Black Lives Matter.

This is one of those theatrical experiences that’s supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – those involved would be concerned if you weren’t. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure how this unconventional history lesson was going to come together to an appropriate conclusion. But when the lights finally came up, I reflected on it all and thought, OK, I see it now.

You should see it, too. “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes” runs through Sunday at the Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

IndyFringe: Tasty Bits – The Magic and Stories of Taylor Martin

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Locally-based magician Taylor Martin — popular for his historical and drag characters — has accumulated a lot of interesting experiences. He has been posting them on Facebook, each under the title “There’s a Story to be Told.” One reader said the snippets of his life are like “Tasty Bits,” and thus Martin had a title for his latest Fringe Show.

That’s also a story he told.

I know Martin well enough to recognize that was his Jethro Tull album playing as we entered the venue. We are totally in his element. 

We meet Rodney the Younger, Rodney the Elder, and Madame Esmarelda, but what’s more unusual, we get to know Taylor Martin himself.  He has so many “Bits” — from touring, his past as a singing telegram, and all the interesting and famous people he has met — that he has placed many of them into envelopes. In true magician style, audience members are asked to pick the next one he will tell. These he will only tell once during the run of the show, so each performance is different. Others he will tell every time, like how he came to be friends with Penn & Teller. 

Martin has performed and produced in nearly every IndyFringe, but this show is unlike any other he’s done. There will be illusions, such as his 100-year-old magic box; but you also get the story of how he now has a 100-year-old magic box. 

If you know him at all, you know this is going to be good. If you don’t, well, he has some stories to tell you. Performances are today through Friday and Sunday by the Indy Firefighters’ Museum, 748 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: ‘The Best of Taylor Martin’s Indy Magic, Vol. 3’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

As one of the longest-running performers at the Fringe, Taylor Martin once again brings us an evening of magic, comedy and entertainment for all ages (especially the kids — they will have a ball).

The cast of magicians rotates, but you are always guaranteed to enjoy yourself regardless of who is performing. I managed to catch the Saturday matinee and my lineup included The Great Obtuse, The Amazing Barry and perennial favorite, Cody Clark.

All of them turned in solid performances. Cody debuted a delightful new routine, and Obtuse lived up to his name and kept us laughing throughout. The Amazing Barry brings the show home by doing a card trick with his feet (trust me, it’s really worth seeing).\

I found out later that one of The Amazing Barry’s illusions went wrong. However, I, along with the rest of the audience) thought it was meant to go that way to make the actual completion of the trick even more impressive.

So come on out and watch the show. Who knows what will happen?

Performances are at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 St. Clair, just east of the Mass Ave and College intersection.