by Byron Woods
Had he lived long enough, Marx may well have updated his famous epigram that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. By now, might he not have easily added that, by the third time, it starts to look a lot like Tarantino—or in other words, an unlikely combination of the two?
That’s my initial response to the world premiere of NIGHT BEAST, a new adaptation of an unproduced 1968 screenplay by Ed Bullins. A Little Green Pig revival of the dark comedy GOIN 'A BUFFALO by the playwright, once a minister of culture for the Black Panthers, was well received in 2008, and understandably inspired this return engagement.
The auteur of RESERVOIR DOGS—and, of course, the self-styled hommage to blaxploitation films, JACKIE BROWN—was already on my mind after filmmakers Jim Haverkamp and Alex Maness’ crunchy little coming attractions trailer for an upcoming play by Howard Craft opened the evening at Manbites Dog Theater. The comic book-themed short was riddled with riffs on PULP FICTION and studded with regional stars, and came immediately before a rare curtain speech by director Jay O’Berski, who referred to what we were about to see as “an hour-long joyride.”
Unfortunately, “joy” is a bit too unqualified a response to the work in question.
Which is regrettable, particularly since Bullins seems as informed on more recent racial armed conflicts in foreign countries as he is on older struggles in the U.S. A section in which a government spokesperson terms insurgent protesters “cockroaches” directly quotes the rhetoric used during the Rwandan genocide. Another passage refers to unrest in “New Lagos,” a nod to the still problematic Nigerian homeland of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
There are other flashes of knowing social and political critique, both international and closer to home. Utiziling the hoariest trope from mid-century science fiction, Bullins thinly veils his cultural criticism of media, politics and protest by placing his characters on a far-away planet. How thinly? Its events take place in a city called New Amsterdam—the name from the early 1600s for what is now New York.
On that not-so-distant orb, colonists are threatened by a revolutionary group called the New Life People: not only by their resistance to the social and civic status quo, but by the infection they’re rumored to be harboring—the always-fatal "Big Bug."
Or so, at least, the single media source of this fictional planet would have us believe. Actor Lakeisha Coffey’s reporter seems a beautiful, breathless—and essentially brainless—parrot for the party line. Bullins contrasts her interpretations of events with close-up scenes among the resistance fighters.
Which, regrettably, is where the wheels come off in this hybrid script. Holed up under enemy fire in a basement health-food bar/nightclub called The Third World, three armed freedom fighters occupy their time—and ours—in straight-faced renderings of boilerplate lines and stock scenarios lifted, wholesale, from exploitation and war flicks.
But the militant and trigger happy Stranger (given an over-the-top reading by Gil Faison), a regal Sister (Regenna Rouse) and Cindas (Utrophia Robinson), who seems a variation of River, the cute but lethal adolescent from Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY, are preoccupied not only by Exterminators outside their bunker. They have to figure out what to do with an outsider in their midst: Trevor Johnson’s Cowboy, who was pinned down under street fire and stumbled upon the revolutionary den, accidentally killing one of their number in the process.
Conveniently for the playwright (but not as much for his audience), Cowboy has amnesia, which necessitates lengthy and repeated expositional passages to clue the viewers—I mean, Cowboy—into the playwright’s extensive (and, beyond a point, tedious) backstory.
Ever so ponderously, the trio of fighters quibble, first over who's in charge and then about Cowboy's fate, before inviting him to join them in the fight. This he does, giving him and his companions further occasion for predictable soliloquies about The Cause. And of course, a far too likely “unlikely romance” develops behind these enemy lines, conveyed in cheesy, dated dialogue.
Which raises what I hope is not an inconvenient question: In such laughable lines and so soapy a plot, what exactly are Bullins and director O’Berski ribbing here?
Is NIGHT BEAST a critique of the revolutionary ideals and dreams that have prompted—and still prompt—people to risk their lives? Does it actually suggest those mindsets are as dated, clichéd and smirk-inducing as a vintage motion picture genre or two?
The playwright’s none-too-subtle swipes include jibes at a “President Baraka” who “defers to his military and Congress,” a shock-and-awe weapon called the Astonisher, and the ends-justify-the-means rationale of a character who exults, “The murder of our oppressors will make us all saints!”
But when we see militants engage in bizarre disco action almost immediately after being attacked and wounded—set to a intentionally wrongheaded soundtrack including Van Halen, Heart and the Rolling Stones—I conclude that Bullins and O’Berski are actually saying that such a pop culture vision of what a revolution looks like is actually about as two-dimensional as the celluloid it might have once been filmed on.
It's a useful enough goal for a work of art, I suppose. Tellingly though, the question of what a real revolt might look like is left to another day—which is passing strange, since we take it that the playwright was actually a witness to one himself.