MPAACT’s 25th season opener strikes a satirical chord as it blends musical comedy with the search for justice and odes to Black Jesus.
A young black man is dead in the back of a police car. Having reportedly committed suicide after his arrest outside a convenience store on non-specific charges, the details of Maurice “Munchie” Taylor’s final moments are far from concrete. His community takes to the streets in protest, further escalating tensions between a dubious police force and the African-Americans they are meant to protect.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is—almost. Though Carla Stillwell’s world premiere play with gospel-style songs takes much of its action directly from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the countless race-related tragedies in America’s recent past, Lawd the CVS Is Burning is light on tragedy and heavy on laughs, stoking fiery outrage with outlandish musical mischief set in Chicago’s “dangerously urban” Englewood neighborhood.
Told mostly through the lens of local news station BSN (with an emphasis on the BS), the production racks up laughs within its well-paced and politically incorrect 80 minutes, complete with a beat-boxing “Token White Guy” news anchor (Jackson Pearl) and Carlton-lookalike reporter (Benjamin Timothy Jenkins). Every member of the cast is comically gifted and equally committed to the musical’s hilariously sharp and sometimes poignant libretto; Quinton Guyton, especially, proves his comedic chops as he plays the role of Mama Jackson in drag (think Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad, but with a better weave collection). In contrast, Guyton also earns the night’s most honest moment in a soulful refrain about the unending worry faced by the mothers of black sons.
Despite its source material, Lawd the CVS Is Burning makes for a light and digestible evening of new work, which may be where the production falls short of hitting its mark. While highlighting the mounting list of troubling realities facing black youth, Stillwell’s musical feels confined by its own satirical style, unable to resolve the conflicts which set the action of the play in motion. But maybe that’s the point. The piece successfully warns us about the nature of the media’s role in how we form opinions about the events that shake our nation, and in doing so distracts and removes us from the inciting news story—Maurice “Munchie” Taylor dead in the back of a police car.
MPAACT. Written and directed by Carla Stillwell. Music by Shawn Wallace. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.