nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
August 12, 2006
"Perceptions"—that's the key theme in Robb Leigh Davis's stunning new AMERICANBLACKOUT. How is a homosexual black man perceived in America? How does he perceive himself? And how does he begin to understand the perceptions of others? A web of interconnected prejudices fuels this performance, and spins around in the mind of Robb Leigh Davis, who wrote, directed, and stars in this intense piece of theatre. I was shocked, saddened, and moved sitting in the Access Theater that afternoon as I watched Davis bring the audience through the magnitude of oppression he has faced throughout his life. I'm not exactly sure how much of AMERICANBLACKOUT is autobiographical, but the empathetic and powerful presentation speaks to an experience that feels very human, personal, and important.
Five actors, five chairs, an American flag, and a couple of dictionaries are all Davis needs to share his story with us. Through a series of playlets, amounting to what might be considered a narrative of our protagonist's life, we see the web of perception play itself out. Beginning with college and working forward, Davis chronicles his interactions with countless others who all seem to want something from him that he is not capable of, nor should he have to give; things such as heterosexual sex, a stereotypical "blackness," or the charge of invisibility.
There have, of course, been countless dramas scrutinizing this struggle, but what sets AMERICANBLACKOUT from the rest is its extremely likable and accessible protagonist. Davis is humble and fragile, but willing to stand up for himself, if he could only understand why and how the web of perceptions spin as they do. This play is an exploration of that effort. I felt as if I could understand Davis, and he could understand me. There was something in his humble nature which warranted empathy not just from his own demographic, but from everyone in this world who has felt ostracized and been misunderstood consistently and unfairly. As we tread through this world obsessing over others' perceptions of ourselves, we rarely look at our own act of perceiving. Davis teaches us the value in such an effort, and makes the experience accessible and moving.
Davis's supporting cast is also strong and incredibly versatile as they take on numerous roles in the various walks of life he must tread. It is their strength and the importance Davis, as the architect of the play, puts on them that transports this piece beyond the story of one man and into an experience that is unique, powerful, and unmistakably American.