Comic book heroes are not to be trifled with. Don't think so? Ask Halle Berry—or Julie Taymor. By now, most actors and directors know the rule: Fear the fanboy and the fangirl, for both are notoriously tetchy when it comes to their favorite characters.
The reasons aren't that hard to fathom. I never got into mainstream fixtures like Spider-Man or Superman, but I still remember my first superhero: The Shadow, that eerie pulp vigilante immortalized in the old-time radio serials of Orson Welles and revived by DC Comics in an atmospheric film noir version in the 1970s, when I first got interested in comics. Looking back, it was a pedestrian enough case of transference. A child with little power (and even less mystique) idealized and, for a while, vicariously lived through a mysterious character with special powers. (I even made my own radio plays of comic book issues on cassette tapes and circulated them among my friends.)
Heroes are hard to find. When we link ourselves to one as children, we invest our own reality in theirs. Thus the fanboy/ fangirl dilemma: whatever's done to the hero can feel like it is being done to us as well. Batman isn't just the alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne; he's also something of an idealized surrogate identity for several million people. More than reason enough for any writer or director to translate ... very carefully.
Can rising regional playwright Howard L. Craft sidestep this difficulty by simply crafting a completely new African-American superhero, Herald Jones, in the first volume of Jade City Chronicles at Manbites Dog Theater?
Far from it. A work that's equal parts homage and critique of comics in general, and their track record in representing African-American heroes in particular, needs to know, chapter and verse, the cheesy conventions and outright gaffes that idiom has historically committed with respect to both characters and the audience. Additionally, the comics are hardly the only genre to have blundered its way across the landscape of racial heroes and superheroes in recent years: more than a few spectacular excesses have also been captured on film and video. Clearly, there's no way Craft could have done justice to his subject without including those iterations in his crosshairs.
Trust me, he's done the research. As a result, Jade City Chronicles at times has more name-checks and genre references than the coatroom and galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the Pulp Fiction Afro that briefly adorns Lucius Robinson's head in the work's opening seconds to potent shout-outs to Afrika Bambaataa, Edward James Olmos and Elie Wiesel, Craft has fairly stuffed his crosswired theater/ comic book creation with a dizzying array of cultural cross-references. How many other shows will invoke Martin Heidegger, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the films of Charles Bronson, with a little Kurtis Blow to season?
Director Jay O'Berski leads a memorable cast through this campy, self-aware celebration of pulp's conventions. Mike Wiley handles the title role with aplomb, and Kashif Powell gives a vivid performance as Supreme Intellect, Jones' street-level confidante. On the bad guys' side, Chris Burner is stiffly directed as Memphis Snake, while Tony Perucci's turn as the eeeeevil Dr. Thorn is an over-the-top, cross-dressing hoot. In supporting roles, Alphonse Nicholson finds laughs in the awkwardness of Jones as a young man, and Thaddaeus Edwards fills the role of his mentor, Uncle Roscoe.
The devices that divide the stage into comic-strip-like "panels," Alex Maness' filmed sequences and animations by Geraud Staton and Jamie B. Wolcott take us from stage to film to page to video game screen (briefly) and back again, in a guilty, knowing pleasure for actors, designers and audience alike. Sign us up for volume 2.