Presented by Company One in collaboration with American Repertory Theater,
Boston Public Library, and Boston Comics in Color Festival
Written by Inda Craig-Galván
Directed by Monica White Ndounou
Dramaturgy by Ilana M Brownstein and Regine Vital
Animation design & comics consultant: Cagen Luse
Fight choreography by Margaret Clark
April 23 – May 21, 2022
Rabb Hall @ Boston Public Library’s Central Branch
All tickets are Pay-What-You-Want ($0 minimum)
Recommended for ages 14 and up. This production contains depictions of police brutality, violence, death, grief, depression, and strong language.
Review by Kitty Drexel
BOSTON, Mass. — The leads of Black Super Hero Magic Mama deserve a critic that looks like them. I look like the cops that are acquitted by juries that also look like me for killing unarmed Black men and women. There are more white critics than Black critics in New England. We need more Black critics in Boston. I strongly urge interested individuals to apply for The Porch’s Young Critics Program this winter and then to shoot me an email.
Company One and American Repertory Theatre’s Black Super Hero Magic Mama shows us an unsettled Chicago. Sabrina Jackson (Ramona Lisa Alexander, who ran that stage like Pam Grier on a mission) is raising a bright young quiz show star Tramarion Jackson (Joshua Robinson). When Tramarion isn’t trouncing the competition on “Know Your Heritage” with Coach Corey Brackett (Ricardo Engermann), he’s writing comic books with his friend Joseph A Hughes aka Flat Joe (Anderson Stinson III). These two smart but mouthy kids have bright futures. That is until the worst happens.
Sabrina retreats into her own mind while her family and friends cope with tragedy. The stories that kept her grounded in reality help Sabrina battle the emotional demons in her head. People in her life morph into superheroes to play out a grand fantasy. Black Super Hero Magic Mama focuses the conversation around police violence on the families that live through it.
The dramaturgy work by Ilana M. Brownstein and Regine Vital is very well done. Audience members are encouraged to read Brownstein’s interview with playwright Inda Craig-Galavan for play and production insights. Brownstein also interviews director Monica White Ndounou. Ndounou tells us about her inspirations and about the CRAFT Institute. There is self-care advice for the audience and information on finding justice. Cagen Luse’s “Thoughts Become Things” superhero activity sheet was super fun!
Black Super Hero Magic Mama discusses the state of mental healthcare for Black women without discussing mental healthcare for Black women. In act one, Sabrina Jackson loses grasp on reality after the death of her son Tramarion. In act two, she is hospitalized in a catatonic state. We learn of Sabrina’s health through her sister Lena (Ashley Rose). We do not meet the doctor. The doctor isn’t important; explaining why the doctor isn’t important requires unpacking.
BIPOC and people of the African diaspora distrust the US healthcare system. The USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and the continued study of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells represent just two of many cases of abuse against them. There are many more.
In addition to the society-wide stigma against mental healthcare we all face, only 2% of mental healthcare providers are Black. Black people want a therapist that looks like them, that represents them, who can identify with the issues they face (that white people do not). And, because the US is infused with systemic racism from top to bottom, Black women, in particular, anticipate trauma when they visit the hospital. Maybe they’ll be labeled an “angry Black woman” or be denied medication because it is falsely assumed their pain threshold is higher. It is entirely reasonable that they would defer treatment. No one wants to be traumatized. Or retraumatized.
So when Lena brings Sabrina into the hospital, we know Sabrina’s condition is dire. When Sabrina magically rebounds from her catatonic state, it isn’t because she has embodied her superhero persona. She rebounds because the world expects nothing but perfection from Black women. Sabrina bounces back because she has a lifetime of practice; she lost a husband before she lost a son.
Craig-Galván’s portrayal of journalists is not incorrect. Connie Wright (Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson) and Tom Blackman (Stewart Evan Smith) are quasi-sympathetic story hounds more interested in promotions than they are in helping the Black community through another tragedy. Maybe journalists can’t every fight they cover, but they can be present and respectful for the ones they do cover. Sometimes even arts journalists forget that. Swanson and Smith were hilarious as reporters; they were hilarious as supervillains.
Dustin Tauber plays Dave Lester. Lester is a cop. Tauber plays the cop with humanity. It is generous of Craig-Galván to include the cop’s perspective in a show about the consequences of an insufficiently trained police force. All cops have to do is not kill Black people, and they still manage to fuck up.
The performance of Black Super Hero Magic Mama on Saturday night experienced technical difficulties. The bed prop lost two of its wheels during the performance. The cast and crew responded like rock stars. The actors pretended like it was part of the performance even though it wasn’t. They were ready to keep going. Stage Management paused the show while the tech crew assessed. Actors went backstage to wait.
These things happen. Even if crews plan and strategize during rehearsals, they still happen. The A.R.T. and C1 crews stopped the show because that was safest for the cast (working with a broken prop is dangerous. Never do this.). When the actors cleared the stage, the crew executed a backup plan. When everyone was ready to resume, the performance picked back up where it left off with unashamed vigor. Both theatre companies worked together to problem-solve. This is how theatre should be conducted: transparently with effective communication, decisive leadership, and mutual respect.
Black Super Hero Magic Mama by C1 and the A.R.T. is still evolving. It has some issues that will be sussed out through performance (such as the cast finding their stride, and the flat energy during transitions) or in its next drafts (the second half is stronger than the first), but its messages are very strong. More so than anything else, Black Super Hero Magic Mama expresses joy and compassion. There is great joy to be found in community and healing. DC and Marvel films wouldn’t sell so well otherwise. Comic books would have died out with my parents’ generation. That they haven’t means that characters such as Luke Cage, Storm, Black Lightning, Shuri, the Dora Milaje, Falcon, and Isaiah Bradley are still as necessary as they were when they were introduced.
Key and Peele’s “Power Falcons” sketch