Where the River Runs Wild

On the Hills of Black America is a surreal journey through an urban wasteland.

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Keith Josef Adkins is the melodic moniker of a newly unearthed Cleveland Public Theatre playwright. As his On the Hills of Black America demonstrates, if combustible talent, originality, and a facility for coining new language count as currency, Adkins should be able to bankroll a small country.

Emblazoned with CPT founder James Levin's magnetism, this burgeoning theater is a lightning rod attracting hungry, on-the-edge talent. On the Hills, a winner from last year's New Plays Festival, is a juggernaut of a play that immediately takes viewers into the eye of the storm.

A satanic-eyed mutant, a rap "Stymie," opens the play on a ravaged countryside, playing cat-and-mouse games with his outwardly warm and sassy, inwardly reptilian parents. Meanwhile a deadly comet hurtles toward Earth, bound to destroy the hills of black America.

According to the program notes, the evening is a series of seven vignettes based on "the black mind's response to the wounds created by racism, classism, sexism, the ravages of history, and heterosexism."

The worst that can be said for this faster-than-a-speeding-bullet seventy minutes is that, at times, it can be as difficult to penetrate as a Kandinsky painting. The best news is that it is as exotic as a voyage through a tropical rainforest.

In another vignette, an angry descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings appears on a veranda. The descendant, played by Princette Bowling, is a Fury in a petticoat and head rag out of an antebellum epic. She wails over two centuries of ancestor worship, "licking the Jefferson ass clean," and pointing out the resemblance of her inner nostril to that of the late president. Bemoaning that she is too dark to play the mulatto Hemmings in the official Jefferson/Monticello reenactment, she has been consigned to play the lowly servant girl. Holding the weeping Hemmings facsimile prisoner, she defiantly blows up Monticello and reclaims her heritage, along with the pride that has been lost for generations. Adkins forces viewers to dwell on the tyranny of history, while at the same time kicking it in the britches.

There isn't a moment that seems used, hackneyed, or previously trod upon. Like George Orwell's 1984 or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Adkins's play uses slang to embroider mysterious new lands. Two angry brothers perform arias of sibling rivalry, turning the phrase "OK" into a hypnotic litany as they dig up the body of a woman they cannot bear to live without. In an evening as amorphous as quicksand, the viewer can't even be sure that the woman really was a woman. A transvestite ghost comes out to lecture how she seduced the brothers "by doing incredible things to her hair" and by baking a terrific cobbler. It's one of the evening's many delicious ironies that this Delilah temptress, who enslaved the brothers to Poe-ish insanity, is, in reality, a saucy boy in drag who knows how to mime a seductress better than the real thing.

On the journey through this theatrical rainforest, one never knows where the river will lead. There's a crack baby as a caped superhero, an alien wife who may be hiding out in the refrigerator, and freakish carnival rituals. Imagine Harriet Beecher Stowe as retold by Poe, The Twilight Zone with Spike Lee as Rod Sterling.

Under a stern taskmaster, this disturbing work could sink into an airless diatribe. Thankfully, Director Tony Sias has plenty of feathers to keep it light and airy. He wisely tempers subversion with laughing gas, keeping his supple cast of performance artists pop-eyed and olive-oiled.

As they used to say in the ending credits of old Universal Photoplays, "A good cast is worth repeating": Princette Bowling, Allen Branstin, Ebani Edwards, Talib McCullough, Kevin Moore, Sherman Williams, and the ever-charming Jonathan D. Ray all hold their own. Set designer Giuseppe Provenzano merits similar accolades for creating the surreal funhouse in which the action takes place; it's a phantasmagoric netherland of metal wheat and urban wasteland, populated with a tree stump that morphs into an African mask where skeletons and goblins pop out at unexpected moments.

By plunging the audience into the heart of terror, Adkins, with his dazzling wordplay and high-grade battery acid, performs an exorcism, tunneling viewers through the mud to the stars.


On the Hills of Black America, through March 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

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