I had a feeling of déjà vu while watching By a Black Hand, the North Carolina Central University production co-written and directed by NCCU theater professor Arthur Reese. Eventually, I realized what felt so familiar: The show, which tells the story of Nephi (Deshauna Dudley/ Moriah Williams), a jaded black teenager who learns about the richness of her racial heritage through the aid of her grandfather (Gil Faison/ Dartez Wright) and an instructional visit by her favorite rap group, reminded me of those educational performances I used to have to watch in elementary school.
Typically, we'd all get called into the cafeteria (which doubled as the auditorium) and be treated to a presentation about the dangers of drugs and alcohol or the perils of joining a gang. But these performances would be riddled with jokes and songs and pop culture references appropriate for a bunch of kids, and we'd eat it right up.
By a Black Hand is exactly like those performances. It's a theatrical educational special presented to coincide with Black History Month, and its vague narrative exists solely to link together hip-hop songs about black inventors and the importance of racial pride. That's not a criticism: By a Black Hand is not trying to be subtle. Reese knows his target audience, and he knows that the best way to get students to sit through an hour-long lecture about black history is to throw in music and dancing and video slideshows. And it works: The actors and dancers seem to be having an amazing time and, despite technical difficulties and lame lyrics, their energy is infectious. When rappers The Force (Terence Anthony) and Hardline (Neil 'GR' McGilberry) urged the audience to "put your fours up" during the show's finale, a musical tribute to Barack Obama, all hands pumped in the air to the beat. And when Reese took to the stage after the show to answer questions from the audience, the lone comment was an earnest "That was great!"
That's not to say that the acting is believable or the plotline makes sense or that I understand why By a Black Hand focuses almost entirely on black inventors rather than any other African-American thinkers or writers or history-makers. But the play does what it sets out to do. As the one white person in attendance last Friday night, I was clearly not the target audience of this show. Still, when the actors jumped down from the stage and led everyone in a rousing rendition of "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud!" I found myself singing along.
This article appeared in print with the headline "There will be blood."