The Writing Is On The Wall: “New and Dangerous Ideas”

Sarah Leach, Phoenyx Williams, and Christopher Johnson in the world premiere of “New and Dangerous Ideas” by Christopher Johnson at The Wilbury Theatre Group. Photo by James Lastowski.

Presented by Wilbury Theatre Group
Written by Christopher Johnson
Directed by Josh Short

November 2nd through 18th, 2017
Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Ct
Providence, Rhode Island  02909
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Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight

(Providence, Rhode Island)  Lately I’ve been listening to JAY’s most recent album 4:44 when I’m driving, and one of my favorite tracks is “Smile,” partly because of the following lyric:  A loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson / Appreciate the pain, it’s a blessin’.  JAY’s album – released in response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade – is a reflection of the current state of Black American manhood, and right now you can hear that same lyric echoed by Black men throughout all the creative spheres.  The two men starring in New and Dangerous Ideas were certainly grappling with the lessons that we all can learn from the losses of rampant racism.

The entire back wall of the stage was covered with the phrase “It’s not my job to teach White people about racism,” scribbled in chalk like a child writing a line over and over as their school punishment.  The psychic energy emanating from the scenic design was disturbing and sad, yet fortified by the playwright’s symbols of persistent protests.  It was the energy of Nina Simone, who performed protest songs the weekend after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death when Nina plainly preached to her audience “Do you realize how many we have lost?  We can’t afford anymore losses.  Oh my god, they’re shooting us down one by one.  (Then Nina becomes serious.)  Don’t forget that, because they are:  Killing us one by one…”  And in fact, Nina Simone’s “Four Women” was featured during the performance, along with two other protest songs – JAY’s “The Story of O.J.” and, of course, Public Enemy’s classic “Don’t Believe the Hype.

The lifeless logline of this play is a compilation of monologues, poems, and letters from Black Americans who have been victims of fatal police brutality.  However, the powerful punch of this performance was produced through the Black actors’ palpable anger.  At one point, the cast member Phoenyx Williams yells at an imaginary police officer, “I don’t gotta tell you shit!” and we in the audience felt Phoenyx’s real rage.  

I know Phoenyx as a friend who sends me hilarious texts during the workday.  I’ve worked with him on set, where he makes everyone laugh. He is a joy to be around. However, up on the stage, I beheld another side of Phoenyx I had never met. Phoenyx morphed into the descendent of a Black Panther and, in the true spirit of experimental theater, at the end of the play Phoenyx stripped down to his knickers and cried out his pain in front of a humbly educated audience. The accomplished actor Phoenyx Williams bore his Black soul bare, and his vulnerability was politically brave as well as technically brilliant.

New and Dangerous Ideas drives home the theme of brutal deaths because one has brown skin, and that’s why dangerous in the title.  What’s new is the amplified awareness that brown skin is not the problem!  Amplification is at a new level, and awareness is activated around the country.  Amidst of a national crisis where nobody, not even conservative Whites, nobody is denying that the police profile and unconstitutionally target Blacks, I walked out of Willbury Theatre struck by the Group’s yearning for a solution; for a safe and harmonious tomorrow.  After a play about Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Howard Morgan, plus others who have been wrongly arrested and murdered – the talkback conversation revolved around ways to unite Black teenagers and the local police force, and our evening ended with everyone in the room talking about tolerance, dialogue for peacebuilding, and befriending your enemies.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been … murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”  ―Gandhi

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