Written by: Danielle Boss
Performance Review: Michael is Black by Michael Hagins
Presented by Cupcake Lady Productions and directed by Laura Mae Baker, Michael is Black makes its world premiere at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. Playing at the La Tea theatre, Michael is Black is a beautiful new play and a must see. Written by Michael Hagins, the play details the autobiographical journey of the young playwright’s life. Subverting audience expectations, the “real” Michael is played by Hagins himself, while the character of Michael is portrayed by Michael Rehse, a white actor. Rehse speaks for Michael Hagins in documenting the black playwright’s life and how his blackness played a role. Both characters appear wearing the same outfit of khaki pants and a blue polo shirt to mirror each other and to represent that Rehse is a symbol for Michael and that he is speaking on Hagins’ behalf. Hagins is silent throughout the duration of the production and communicates to both Rehse and the audience via writing. From his adolescent days in Florida to his adult career as playwright and actor, Rehse, in his charming demeanor, tells Michael Hagins’ affecting story.
Everything about Michael is Black is beautiful, riveting, and captivating, from Rehse and Hagins’ outstanding performances to Hagins’ gorgeous writing. Imbued with symbolism, the entire production of Michael is Black is a spectacle of itself. Hagins cleverly chose to have a white actor tell the trials and tribulations that he, as a black man, faced in order to prove a point that racial bias and prejudice are still prevalent in modern day America. Hagins’ consistent silence and ardent refusal to speak, despite Rehse’s imploring, symbolizes not only Michael’s shy and reserved caliber but it also symbolizes systematic oppression and the suppression of minorities’ voices in a society that claims to be egalitarian. By choosing to have a white man speak about issues regarding race in America, Hagins turns the racial tension and misunderstanding present in this country on its head and compels the audience to acknowledge this severely over-looked problem. Michael is Black not only brings to light the issues of discrimination when it comes to being black, but it also addresses a race issue that is often not spoken about, that of which being shunned and mocked for not fitting under certain racial stereotypes. Speaking as Hagins, Rehse reveals to the audience multiple stories in which Michael was teased by both black and white people for “not being black enough” and “for acting white.” The bullying went so far as people asking Hagins if he was adopted and raised by white parents because he “spoke white” and his fellow white students deriding him by saying things like, “Even I act more black than you.” Rehse’s portrayal of agony and compassion while describing Hagins’ story is gripping. Not only does Rehse skillfully capture Hagins’ varying emotions from sarcasm to despair while telling his life story, but Rehse also breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience and interrupting his monologues to show his genuine concern for Michael’s well-being. Hagins’ performance was mesmerizing and evocative. Even without using spoken word, Hagins’ pointed facial reactions and body language delivered an emotionally remarkable performance. The chemistry between both Michael Hagins and Michael Rehse is palpable and stirring. The poignant connection between both actors bolstered an already intimate performance between actor and audience.
What makes Michael is Black so riveting is that it discusses sensitive and controversial issues while being open, honest, and empathic, rather than preachy and “in-your-face.” Michael is Black promotes understanding and openness, rather than further division. Michael is Black reminds us that despite all our differences, from race to sexual orientation to gender, we are all human and must learn to coexist and accept one another as being both different and the same. While elegantly discussing racially sensitive issues, Michael is Black also poetically addresses themes of abusive relationships, unrequited love, depression, suicide, and the unrelenting feeling of “being different” and “the shy awkward nerdy kid.” By tackling such harrowing issues through one person’s perspective, this incredibly moving play individualizes a universal problem. Michael is Black is honest, heartbreaking, provocative, and touching. Hagins first and only time speaking throughout the entire show was acutely chilling. His powerful line, “I can be better,” is profoundly piercing. With its poetic language and gripping storyline, Michael is Black is a memorable work of art.
Like most shows at Planet Connections, the production of Michael is Black will be benefiting a charity of their choice. The performance of Michael is Black will be supporting The United Negro College Fund, an organization that funds scholarships for black students and general scholarship funds for all historically black colleges and universities in the country. Michael is Black is one of those rare plays that you will truly regret not taking the time out to see. It will keep you glued to the edge of your seat, craving more. It’s beautiful message echoes and resonates.