The script for Mansa Ra’s heart-bruised new play, “In the Southern Breeze,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, has two epigraphs — one from the Amiri Baraka poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” the opposite from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the ethical universe is lengthy, however it bends towards justice.”
These opposing impulses — despair and perseverance — duel over the course of this dramatic darkish evening of the soul, which opens with a anonymous modern American (Allan Okay. Washington), named merely Man, arriving residence and stripping off the smile he wears, of necessity, within the hostile world exterior.
It’s the expression he calculates, as a Black man, to sign that he’s each nonthreatening and educated sufficient to not be messed with. “The Obama Deluxe,” he calls it.
That little slam will get an enormous chortle. Only some minutes in, humor is already a stress launch in a present that can speak of suicide, slavery and the deadly drive of racism in Black males’s lives all through United States historical past. And Ra, like this present’s glorious forged of 5, proves adept at lightning-quick switches between the crushing and the comical.
Laid low with anxiousness, melancholy and panic assaults, the remoted Man is struggling to hold on. Submission to the unseen, ever-present noose that hangs over him — “Each Black man’s boogeyman,” he calls it — has begun to appear like a consolation.
“Typically it beckons me,” he says towards the top of that first scene, which, hearkening again to Baraka’s poem, Ra titles Quantity 19. Quantity 20 is that this play’s different bookend. The longest of the three scenes — the surreal and shifting heart, by which Man doesn’t seem — is Quantity 1.
In a good-looking manufacturing by Christopher D. Betts, all of it takes place on a grassy expanse stretching into the gap, with a religious, “Fare Ye Nicely,” as a solacing aural motif. (The set is by Emmie Finckel, the lighting by Emma Deane, the costumes by Jahise LeBouef and the sound by Kathy Ruvuna.)
Because the play shifts into Quantity 1, the cautious, keen Madison (Charles Browning) enters, in search of the caravan that can take him north to satisfy his spouse. It’s 1780, so far as he is aware of, and he’s working from slavery, barefoot.
However the first particular person he encounters is Lazarus (Victor Williams), a Tennessee sharecropper from 1892. Then a Nineteen Seventies Black Panther named Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin) stumbles in, adopted shortly after by Tony (Travis Raeburn), a younger AIDS activist from the early Nineties. It takes most of them some time to determine why they’re all gathered there, beneath that unseen noose, and what number of eras have collided.
“Maintain the telephone,” an incredulous Hue says to Madison. “You actually a slave?”
“Maintain the what?” a baffled Madison replies.
“Within the Southern Breeze” pays tender tribute to earlier generations of Black Individuals and bears unblinking witness to the white violence that has marred and menaced them. Hearkening again to that quote by Dr. King, it additionally acknowledges the progress towards justice by the ages.
This play is a extra formally bold, far-reaching work than “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” with which Ra made his New York debut in 2017, when he was generally known as Jiréh Breon Holder.
What stumps him right here, in Quantity 20, is the right way to let his unnamed Twenty first-century Man reject existential exhaustion in a approach that doesn’t appear pat. Like Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” rewritten for its recent Broadway run to permit extra space for pleasure, this play needs to light up an uplifting path out of ache. However its last part turns muddled and didactic, its poeticism compelled.
Discovering hope, it seems, is the tough half.
Within the Southern Breeze
By Dec. 12, in particular person and streaming, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; rattlestick.org. Operating time: 1 hour quarter-hour.