iNegro, a rhapsody is an audacious, grimly inspiring solo show. Written by and starring Kareem M. Lucas and incisively directed by Zoey Martinson, it asks big, fiery questions about race, family, and the meaning of an individual’s life and agency in the world. It beams all this through the lens of one personal story – or, more accurately, one creative mind. It’s a funny, woeful, and uplifting tour-de-force monologue.
Borrowing a page from Happy Days-mode Samuel Beckett, Lucas locks himself where he can hardly move. Addressing us from a cross, he begins by calling Jesus-like upon a forebear who seems to have forsaken him.
But as we discover, it’s his real father he’s addressing.
As the long soliloquy unfolds we gather family details that flesh out the immobilized figure before us. In less than an hour the show spins multiple layers of story, mostly about struggle: the struggle of a son with a mostly-absent father; of a Black man in a world that never lets him forget he’s Black; and, not least, of an artist seeking his truest form of expression.
Early on, he erupts in an extended litany of wry payoffs to the phrase “I want to write something so Black…” Alternately funny, defiant, and wrenching, they gather a hypnotic electrical charge.
He has no truck with stories of happy families and happy endings. He feels especially spiteful toward Disney: All their stories were “filled with lies.” Disillusioned with both treacly fiction and unreliable family, the boy of 10 “decided not to love.”
There’s more to the staging than the visual conceit of crucifixion. Lighting and sound cues reinforce rollercoaster swings of mood and energy. Snatches of song shift the monologue into an additional dimension of melody. (In fact, a singalong of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – the Black National Anthem – caught and warmed up the audience at the performance I attended.) A subtle original jazz score by Mauricio Escamilla enhances the flow.
But it’s the flow of Lucas’ performance and his sheer verbal and corporeal stamina that make iNegro unique and remarkable. Like athletes, artists talk about getting into “the zone,” where a performer locks into a momentum that makes success seem effortless. Lucas quickly powers into his zone, pulling us in with him. Picture the best running back in the NFL dodging tackles for 80 yards into the end zone. Now imagine he sustains that run for 50 minutes.
Wordplay and rhyming infuse the show too, suggesting the influence of rap lyrics on this elegant, passionate, and, yes, rhapsodic prose poem. There are ecstatic moments, howls of rage, and much intense rumination in between, leavened and heightened by cutting humor and direct engagement with the audience. Altogether, iNegro, a Rhapsody is an almost miraculous fusion of art and meaning. Lucas (or the Lucas character) tells us that he’s “praying for a narrative to provide a context for my purpose.” Prayer answered.
iNegro, a rhapsody is part of a trilogy of solo shows by Kareem M. Lucas called 3 Ages of a Negro. It’s at the New Ohio Theatre through May 14. Visit the website for schedule and tickets.