I'm hard-pressed to recall a play that feels more timely than Book-It Repertory Theatre's adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson's novel Welcome to Braggsville. This play is taking America's temperature at this very second, touching on the so-called political correctness culture of college campuses, America's institutional racism, Southern idolatry of Confederate culture, social media obsession, and much more. Though the book was published in 2015 and the play has been in the works for well over a year, this staging is an incredibly accurate portrait of America in the summer of 2017.
You don't need to have read Welcome to Braggsville to follow the play. It's a pretty straightforward story: four college students from UC Berkeley — two white-presenting, one Malaysian-American, one Black — head to Braggsville, Georgia to make an anti-slavery statement during a Civil War re-enactment. One of the students, D'Aron (Zack Summers, about as clean-cut as they come), is a white boy from Braggsville, and he struggles to reconcile his newfound social conscience with his hometown's history of hatred.
The protest goes horribly wrong, and in the aftermath Welcome to Braggsville fires a blunderbuss of racist iconography and symbols: Confederate flags, blackface, rampant use of the n-word, Klan robes, lynchings, whippings, lawn jockeys, and more figure into the plot. This is a work of art that doesn't flinch; it stares the audience in the face — sometimes literally — and forces them to watch as America's darkest secrets are spoken aloud. (Though the mostly white audience at last night's show did laugh a little too easily at some of the racist humor, creating an additional level of discomfort atop everything else.)
The cast is roundly terrific, bringing tremendous intensity to their performances even as the plot makes a few wrong turns and broad missteps in the final act. (I won't spoil anything, but a big part of the problem is that you can't write a novel about American institutional racism that comes to a satisfying conclusion because America's institutional racism has not ended.) When a nearly three-hour play dedicated to America's uncomfortable history of racism flies by, you know the whole team must be doing top-notch work, from the elegant, minimalistic set design by Pete Rush to the brilliant lighting by Andrew D. Smith.
Braggsville was adapted by director Josh Aaseng and Seattle poet Daemond Arrindell, and Arrindell's contribution is deeply felt: he strays from Book-It's traditional obsessive devotion to the original text, remixing Johnson's words in the novel into poetry. These poems, largely delivered by an unnamed narrator (Naa Akua, perfectly embodying the fiery conscience these characters so desperately need) create a space for the characters and story to breathe and contemplate their actions. They allow the play to incorporate recent news and contextualize the greater tragedies that inspired Braggsville in the first place. A novelist can show us ourselves. A theater company can bring those words to life. But it takes a poet to blow apart the walls between actors and audience, between fiction and reality, between entertainment and education.