Kim Brockington, Denise Burse, Eisa Davis, Ayesha Ngaujah, Linda Powell
Eisa Davis inserts a cassette and presses play. Angela’s Mixtape, a co-production from New Georges and Hip-Hop Theater Festival, has begun.
In her own individual style, she and the rest of the cast present for us a 90-minute “mixtape” about her life, consisting of a series of connected vignettes dealing mostly with her childhood in a household full of women.
Davis, whose full name is Angela Eisa Davis, is the niece of political activist and ex-Black Panther Angela Davis, who was unjustly imprisoned in 1970 when a stolen gun registered in her name was used to commit murder.
Eisa’s hippie-dippy mother, who feeds her tofu and brings her to demonstrations on the weekend, also fails to truly connect with her.
Throughout, Angela remains an elusive presence in her life. Eisa knows she’s a big deal, but never quite figures out how big until she reads her aunt’s autobiography on a trip to New York City, having performed excerpts from it (in the form of dramatic monologues at family events) as a child without truly comprehending their meaning.
Besides for the family drama, we get snapshots of what Eisa was like as a child, obsessed with Fame, Elvis Costello, and playing piano. Wonderfully simple sets by Clint Ramos use literal snapshots as their basis; Ramos adorns a typical living room set with light box reliefs depicting Davis Family scenes.
The most interesting elements of the play arise as Eisa is confronted about her blackness by her peers. As a classmate repeatedly questions her with the refrain of “Are you mixed?” her mother squawks, “You don’t have enough black friends.” All the while, Eisa’s struggling with finding out who she is. Realizing how important her aunt is only aids her in her own personal transformation. As Eisa puts it, “New knowledge, new gratitude.”
Eisa Davis, who wrote the script and plays herself, exudes a wide-eyed exuberance which, though appealing, could be mined for something a bit darker in the play’s more serious moments. She’s surrounded by a spot-on cast. Linda Powell as Angela Davis has the even-keeled, velvety voice of the real Angela, and she’s wonderfully impassioned in the part, particularly during those moments when Angela examines for herself the burdens of fame.
It’s partly thanks to director Liesl Tommy that the production comes across as well as it does. Eisa Davis’s script, though it’s full of wonderful moments and heightened, theatrical language, peters out as it nears its conclusion. The conflict between Eisa and her mother never quite pays off as it should, and Eisa’s relationship with Angela – which ought to be the heart of the play – ultimately resolves in the realization that each individual voice is important, a conclusion that in some ways simultaneously fulfills and negates Eisa’s tireless search for connection.
Tommy keeps the play moving forward at a breakneck speed. Davis and the rest of the cast clap and rap their way through at lightning speed, stopping only rarely for breath. In the “struggle” for equality that each of the characters pursues, the collision of music and activism, Eisa’s and Angela’s respective strengths, serves as the backbone of the production. It’s in the steady rhythmic quality of what’s on-stage that Angela’s Mixtape really shines. Thankfully, everyone in the cast is on board with the beat; one only wishes there were a bit more in the way of harmony – the dissonance of collisions between people – in Davis’s clap-happy script.