A play boss-battling itself

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"Black Super Hero Magic Mama" Photo credit: Chris Whitaker

Inda Craig-Galván’s play “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” is a tricky one to wrap your mind around.  Not because the setup is unfamiliar (unfortunately, you’ll recognize it immediately) but because where the play takes that setup has it fighting against itself.

We’re in Chicago and Tramarion Jackson is getting ready for the Heritage Bowl.  There is not another middle schooler who knows more about black heritage than Tramarion.  He’s got a shelf full of trophies to prove it. He’s the kind of boy that makes his single mother, Sabrina, proud.  He’s on his way to the big day, looking to capture another trophy and be on TV to boot. He and his mom are running late but he still wants to ride with the rest of team. What could go wrong?

He wins the Heritage Bowl but in a dark parking lot after a celebratory dinner with the team, the coach locks his keys in the van.  While he’s trying to break back in, someone calls the cops. We know how this part of the story goes. The white cop accidentally shoots the black boy.

Sabrina is robbed of the single most important thing in her life.  

There is enough in this opening act for a dozen essential and complicated dramas.  What’s perplexing is where the play goes next.

In flashback, we discover that Tramarion was working with a buddy on a comic book.  They are fully steeped in the whole comic book world debating their favorite non-super-hero heroes.  Does Iron Man count? Or is his super brain his super power? Their hero? The Masai Warrior Angel.

So jump forward, Sabrina - consumed by grief, devastated by the media coverage twisting her son’s narrative - has a magical realism breakthrough and enters the world of her son’s comic.

As the Masai Warrior Angel she goes on the gaming, wish fullfillment journey of levelling-up through boss battles with the bad guys.  The final boss? The entity.

Okay, admittedly not where you might expect this drama to go (ignoring the title for a second) but who isn’t ready for a revenge fantasy of a black mother confronting the societal forces that stole her son?

Again, Ms. Craig-Galván’s play will surprise you.  

Once we bend into the world of super heroes, it begins to connect to the broader societal forces. the first bad guys she confronts are the blood thirsty media embodied by two reporters, Lady Vulture and the Human Hyena  In one of the play’s most startling scenes, a video montage from cable news is treated with a comic book filter: absurd comments about threat of Trayvon Martin’s hoodie feel painfully at home as the fodder for a super villain. From there we confront the white cop and it feels like we really are levelling up.  I won’t give it all away but that entity, the final boss battle?  It’s not the embodiment of racism.

It feels like at just the moments the play is going to confront the horrors it shys away and returns to the personal.  Maybe in the end that’s all we can do … but it feels like we’re missing the real drama.

In the end, I’m not sure how to think about “Black Super Hero Magic Mama.” I have the hesitancy I would towards a grieving mother.  In the face of an injustice so great, who am I to say what a mother or a play should or shouldn’t do?

“Black Super Hero Magic Mama” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through April 14th.