by Mike Poblete · August 14, 2014
The Magical Negro, Jamil Ellis explains in his one man show, is the archetypal one-dimensional black character from countless stories who exists solely to help a white protagonist on his journey; such as Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Mykelti Williamson in Forrest Gump and Morgan Freeman in pretty much anything. In this show that is qual parts video sketch comedy, standup and musical cabaret, the Magical Negro finally gets a chance to explain his motivations through Ellis, who sings piano-accompanied ballads and satirically edits himself into such beloved movies as The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.
The premise serves as a jumping point to larger discussions: irresponsible storytelling can do real damage, such as when children ask their parents if black people are magic. Thus the show bounces between the comical and the serious; often asking for audience participation on such topics as such as why black actors can only aspire to play thugs and sidekicks, and how did a recent Super Bowl commercial featuring an interracial family cause such a controversy? Ellis uses his own mixed-race daughter as a backdrop in questioning why young people of color can rarely expect to see themselves depicted in Hollywood.
The songs, composed by Andrew Fox, are fun and bouncy (a racial rendition of the Reading Rainbow theme was a highlight) and the video sketches, such as his "Black Quantum Leap" which explores other time periods (every moment of the past was terrible for black people), are hilarious and poignant. The show, though charmingly erratic, does lose focus at points: some of Ellis’ standup felt didactic, such as a few unscripted comments on the recent Eric Gardner tragedy, and his decision to screen the pilot episode of his topically unrelated webisode series didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the show.
But ultimately the play did what good satire should do: in between laughs it made me rethink the social responsibility of being an audience member. With a brisk running time of 70 minutes, Ellis and director Victoria Myrthil found a funny, clever platform to discuss his sincerely intriguing views on a notoriously difficult topic: racism in contemporary America.