by Melanie N. Lee · August 20, 2015
Matt Jennings | Jonathan David Lewis
“Space…the final frontier.” These rapturous words from Star Trek drew four-year-old Matt Jennings into a world of heroic characters, modern parables, and inner exploration. Now, some 25 years later, in The Universe of Matt Jennings, a one-hour solo show written by Jennings and directed by Levi Austin Morris, the lanky African-American actor shows how the Star Trek franchise, plus his faith, guided him in discovering his identity, his sexuality, and his career.
In the Enterprise’s captain’s chair, in yellow Star Fleet shirt, Jennings is Captain Kirk, taking the starship into dangerous Klingon territory. The actor also evokes the voices of crew members Uhuru, Sulu, Chekov, and Scott. Kirk shouts, “Abandon ship! Computer…end program…damn it.” Doffing his gold uniform, revealing a faded black T-shirt underneath, picking up and dropping a tribble, Matt shares how the Captain’s fall in Star Trek: Generations disillusioned him at age six. The mischievous Q, Captain Picard’s godlike nemesis from Star Trek: The Next Generation, interrupts, putting Trekkie Matt on trial: “You have one hour to make your case for your right to exist.”
So Matt presents his case, Star Trek style. Raised by upscale, Afro-proud parents, young Matt is called “The Little Prophet” by church folk—“like Captain Sisko joining the Bajoran Prophets.” Twisting and shaping his shimmering blue and black scarf as a versatile costume, the actor channels his father Lawrence Jennings (scarf as tie), mother Ophelia Bullard (draped over shoulders), Uncle Rufus (twisted around fist as a cane handle), and Aunt Sophia, who is “unedited, uncut, raw”, who declares of herself, “I may be the best thing yet! …If I’m doing something wrong, God will let me know.”
Schoolmates call Matt “Oreo Cookie”. “Ebonics was never part of my vocabulary,” he explains. “It wasn’t since slavery that it was wrong to be Black and educated.” Still, to fit into the “uniformity of stereotype”, he dons a baseball cap and learns “ghetto terminology” through an urban dictionary: “I’m a Black man. I must represent!” Matt intones, “Edit. Cut. Paste. Print.” Then, joining a gym, he chants, “Edit! Cut! Paste! Print!” as he tries to build up his “Jack Skellington” physique.
At age 13, viewing Star Wars Episode Two—“I know it’s a sacrilege, for a Trekkie…”—the grown-up Anakin Skywalker turns him on. “I’m not gay!” Matt cries. Turning to his “compass of faith,” he finds the anti-homosexuality verses in the Bible no comfort. “I fought myself…like Kirk with the Gorn,” he tells us.
It’s fun watching Jennings lose himself in the Star Trek world, finding layers of literary meanings, learning lessons about race relations and lack of communication, for example. He artfully apes the Star Trek characters’ voices and joyously portrays his relatives (while showing the iconic characters and his family members on screen). At times I feel he’s just skimming the surface of character portrayal; at other times, he’s truly delves into it, like with his father. Perhaps it took Jennings a little time to plunge in. He displays a fine voice in a funny original song, “Not That Kind of Gay”, by Jennings and Natalie Figaredo, to Christopher Bratten’s taped piano accompaniment.
I also like how he presents his acting career as his pulpit on stage, his “ministry in the monologue.” The Universe of Matt Jennings shows how “The Little Prophet” has grown to learn, as his “Q” character puts it, “If you don’t decide who you are, someone else is going to do it for you,” and, “There’s something omnipotent in being the enigma.”