Who’s your favorite superhero with no powers? An important discussion for many 14-year-old boys, but an even more pressing one for Flat Joe and Tramarion, who together are creating Maasai Angel, a superhero comic book of their own inspired by Tramarion’s single mother, Sabrina.
The most interesting characters aren’t those born with or bestowed powers, the boys believe, but rather superheroes like Batman or Ironman, who use their natural skills to fight crime.
Little do they know that soon enough, Sabrina will have to call upon her inner superhero, both figuratively and fantastically to help her deal with the very real tragedy she’s about to face in Inda Craig-Galvan’s Black Super Hero Magic Mama, directed by Eboni Bell.
Meanwhile, little do we know that we'll need to bring our own superpowers of patience for a production that gives little energy to Craig-Galvan’s blemished but idea-filled script.
The first half of the show plays out in traditional realist fashion. Tramarion Jackson (Mykal Sanders) is in full prep mode to appear on a television quiz show about African American history. He’s got all the answers down – black inventors, black political figures, black artists, black social activists, etc. Here Craig-Galvan nicely injects a little schooling on oft-neglected black history.
Tramarion’s Coach (Camryn Nunley) and his mother Sabrina (Christian L. Scott) quiz him to make sure he’s ready. His aunt Lena (Judith Igwilo) calls in her good wishes. And off he goes to the television taping.
Later, however, Tramarion is shot and killed on the way home by a cop (Dain A. Geist) who mistakes his trophy for a gun. We appreciate that we’re not forced to watch the events play out in exploitive fashion (snippets are shown on video projection of news footage), however, the death comes so fast and without dramatic pause that its effect is stifled, forever dulling the mother/son emotion of the narrative.
Unable to process her son's death, Sabrina, enters a semi-catatonic state, much to the chagrin of everyone around her. Lena wants her to just get better and move on and Coach and the cop desperately want her forgiveness.
But it’s the news reporters, Connie Wright (Syndey Lo) and Tom Blackman (the always superb Jason E. Carmichael), who try to suck the life out of her.
Baffled by a Black mother who refuses to play into the expected grieving parent playbook, they hound her incessantly, demanding she come on the air and tell her story.
The reporters have seen enough young Black men killed to know how it goes. Past killings cavalierly reported on the nightly news pepper us from video screens. Reporters get the crying mother on TV and then cover her wailing for justice at the community rally. Easy reporting, reporters barely need to lift a finger. Or at least it would be if Sabrina would just play along.
It’s here, in the skewering of the grief-predatory media that both Crain-Galvan and Director Bell get things very right. Connie (in the perfect long flowing blonde locks of a certain type of anchor) and Tom, ooze unctuous hollowness as they spit out words like tragedy and confusion and tragedy once again in their emotionless reporting. It’s just a story to them, more importantly, an opportunity to advance their careers
Breaking news, they bark, with nothing more to report as Sabrina won’t throw them the bone they need. Then they bark at each other as they angle to each get some kind of exclusive scoop. Or salivate when the cop is set free, hoping this will finally stir up a reaction. Loathsome as their characters are, Lo and Carmichael bring much-needed verve to the show, highlighting some of the script’s most astute and uncomfortable observations.
By the time we hit Act Two, realism is out the window. Sabrina has imagined herself into a comic book space where she transforms into her son’s Maasai Angel on a quest to confront the “entity” and get back “what she’s lost”. Along the way she meets villains to be fought, a narrator to heed, and a hero or two (all characters from Act One reimaged as comic book tropes) that will help her see the light.
It’s here that both Craig Galvan’s narrative and Bell’s direction lose steam.
Narratively, Maasai Angel’s quests and confrontations limp along. None of the encounters hold any real plot excitement or tension, the fight scenes, meant to be kitschy, are lackluster, and Bell gives her cast little else to do but pace back and forth on a lighted plexiglass thrust stage.
As problematic is J Salazar’s sound design. This is a comic book story – where is the BIG sound? Why wasn’t Sabrina’s transformation into Maasai Angel a major sound event? Or her eventual return to human form? We get bits and bobs of sound effects, but this show needed a fully designed momentous sound landscape to make it vibrate.
And yet some of the biggest sound in the show is also a problem, namely the microphones on the actors. Yes, this is the large space at Stages. But at even 200 plus seats, the Sterling stage is quite intimate, so why do the actors in a non-musical (no need to be heard over the band) have to be microphoned and blasted over the speakers instead of projecting from the stage? Not only is the sound quality not good (voices getting louder and then muffled as microphones are moving), but it's jarring looking at an actor that close up, yet hearing their voice come from a speaker behind your head.
If there is one bright spot in the second half of the play, it's Maasai Angel's final comic book encounter with Black Superman (Cody James playing Tramarion's friend Flat Joe in superhero form). Finally, Craig-Galvan gives us a meeting worth savoring. Black Superman may be a man of steel, but it’s his kind heart that ultimately helps Maasai Angel.
“Everybody wants something when they’ve already taken everything from me,” Maasai Angel cries. Black Superman reminds her that she owes nothing to anyone but herself. To stop fighting and start being. To live in the world, honor her son and herself.
To overcome tragedy unquestionably takes superhero strength. To live as a Black parent knowing that tragedy might be coming for your child takes powers beyond human strength.
Black Super Hero Magic Mama may not illustrate these realities perfectly, but we can appreciate the ideas inside the imperfections.
Black Super Hero Magic Mama continues through May 8 at Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, visit stageshouston.com or call 713-527-0123. $17 – $79.