Brandon Victor Dixon on how ‘Black No More’ brings a 1931 novel to 2022
Brandon Victor Dixon is currently playing the lead in Black No More. In the new musical, Dixon plays Max Disher, a Black man who chooses to step into a machine that makes him turn white, and he admits it's taken him a while to get a clear grasp on his character.
"I'm still looking for him," Dixon said with a chuckle. "This character is still in development."
Black No More has a book by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, lyrics by two-time Grammy winner Tariq Trotter (of The Roots fame), and music by Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters. Based on George Schuyler's 1931 Afrofuturist novel, Black No More is running off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center, produced by the New Group.
In the musical, Max is passed over for a promotion and is then fired by his white boss. He then falls for a white woman (played by Next to Normal's Jennifer Damiano), whose family are bigots. So Max is motivated by the promise of whiteness, and of how much better his life can be as a white man.
"Because 'whiteness' is success, 'whiteness' is safety, it's comfort," said Dixon. But in Dixon's words, that trade becomes "a Faustian bargain," and Max learns that whiteness isn't all it's cracked up to be.
New York Theatre Guide spoke with Dixon about what drew him to the role and why — after having played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC and Aaron Burr in Hamilton — he loves a challenging musical.
Did you read the George Schuyler novel before signing up for the musical?
When I got the offer to do the reading [in 2019], I read the novel. And I found the novel to be quite searing in its analysis of social, political, and economic culture with respect to race and patriarchy. And I find that the commentary, while written in 1931, was incredibly relevant and highly specific to our current sociopolitical circumstances.
In the novel, George Schuyler pretty much indicts everybody in the constructs that we are exploring in the show — everybody is to blame for one reason or another. I think the [creators of the musical] wanted to take the tack of: Let's use this story to create a platform upon which we can ask questions of each other. As opposed to us saying: This is your problem, you did this, it's: This is what we are doing to each other. And what is the cost of what we are doing to each other?
What drew you to the role of Max?
I'm certainly a person who doesn't always know which direction to go, or [doesn't] always feel accepted for who I am. And I've certainly made choices that have potentially compromised myself. So, for me, it's admitting that there are underdogs in the world. Max Disher is the underdog. He's an underdog for a variety of reasons, and those reasons have certainly shaped his psychology.
But the circumstances under which they are shaped are not necessarily right. And Max is a person who keeps making the wrong choice, thinking that it will fix him out of his situation: "If I can align myself with these images, these ideas, the closer I can get to the top of the hierarchy, the social hierarchy. If I can align myself more with what people say you need to be to succeed or to get ahead." That's kind of how social norms work.
Anytime I start a new musical, I look at the elements involved and I say: Is there enough? Are the heights of possibility high enough to make this worth pursuing? For this one, the book material was highly compelling and Tariq's work was highly compelling. It created enough elements that the possibilities, the potential for this, is worth pursuing, in hopes that we arrive at someplace worthwhile and meaningful. You don't know if you will, but you hope so.
You're acting opposite Tariq Trotter, who plays Dr. Crookman, the creator of the Black No More machine. Did you give him any advice about how to act in a musical eight times a week?
What's been great about Tariq is that even though this is not his natural creative environment, he does have a very powerful instinct towards theatricalization and emotional storytelling. And on top of that, Tariq is the kind of artist who wants the information: Tell me about the medium. Tell me what works here and what doesn't work here as a writer, as an actor, as a performer. One of the things I respect most about Tariq is that he is brilliant. And he knows when he needs additional information to be his best and he seeks it out, and that's unique amongst creatives of his caliber.
The musical features an original character named Buni, played by Tamika Lawrence, who was not in the novel. She objects to Max's decision to become white. Why do you think it's significant that a Black woman is the voice of reason in the show?
It's a very natural real-world reflection. In general, in our society, particularly when it comes to revolution and movements, Black women are at the heart of them. They tend to form a foundational presence, regardless of who's at the center of a movement. Black women are really the mothers of the world, the custodians of the world. We all do derive from a Black woman. So I think it's just bringing forth what is the truth and reality of the world we live in and just elevating it in our entertainment, which is not something we always do.
Does the musical feel different for you in 2022, especially after the George Floyd protests?
I hear people talking about this a lot, that things have changed or things are different, our perspective on things is different after George Floyd. And I don't agree with that at all. For me, I have not seen any substantive shifts in the world, in social systems, or in people. I've primarily seen superficial adjustments. Now I do think that the lightning rod of the incident, I do think that it raises the issue in some people's minds in a way that will make the show hit people in a different way. But I don't think that the social and racial issues that we're dealing with now are any different than we were dealing with before George Floyd, or during George Floyd. I think that they remain the same.
What do you hope audiences take away from Black No More?
I hope the audience takes from the show the necessity of reexamining how we live with each other, to reexamine the social constructs that we have agreed to participate in, and to reexamine the costs of the cost of journeying to find ourselves in it — and forcing others to journey to find themselves in what are artificial constructs of race and patriarchy and commerce. I hope that people leave the show asking questions about our world, our social constructs, and the cost of continuing to live in them without evolution or change.
Photo credit: Brandon Victor Dixon and ensemble in Black No More. (Photo by Monique Carboni)
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