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The most haunting speech in the work of the late, great American playwright August Wilson is uttered by the church deacon Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
In a moment of terror, Loomis sees bones rising from the bottom of the sea. They sink back, only to be caught by a wave and thrown up on the shore, where they become people and begin to shake hands, “saying goodbye to each other and walking every whichaway down the road”.
If Daniel Beaty – whose virtuoso one-man show Emergence-See! has just opened at the Public Theatre – doesn’t know that speech, I’ll swim New York harbour in January.
Beaty’s story – a slave boat emerges out of that harbour near the Statue of Liberty, throwing modern-day New York into an uproar – depends on a Wilsonian rise and fall. And one of its best moments, a stirringly cockeyed speech delivered by a Jamaican man named Anton, pivots on the line: “We all have white bones.”
In theatres throughout America and Europe, Beaty has been putting flesh on the bones of this show’s more than 40 characters for at least five years. Among this startling multitude, he has been especially acclaimed for his turns as a west African tour guide explaining the horrors of Ghana’s slave dungeons, a kinky-headed little girl with Aids, and a hilarious “militant negro”.
With his lustrous singing voice and his award- winning, poetry-slam cred, Beaty displays a big, bright gift. And with the help of various directors (Kenny Leon, who has a keen eye for emerging talent, staged the Public’s version), Emergence-See! has evolved from a panoply of black vaudeville sketches to a more cohesive narrative, involving two brothers and their father, who has stormed the surreal slave ship.
Beaty’s text still tends to walk every whichaway down the road. He is, at this point, less well developed as a writer than as a performer. But what a performer! ★★★★☆
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