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Daniel Beaty Declares An ‘Emergency’

Daniel Beaty. (Michael Lamont)

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BOSTON — Of all the tragic and bizarre sights that 21st Century New Yorkers have witnessed, a slave ship in New York Harbor isn’t one of them. Except, perhaps, in the mind’s eye of those who’ve seen Daniel Beaty’s “Emergency,” which began life in 2006 at the Public Theater and is here through this weekend at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the inspired auspices of ArtsEmerson.

The setup sounds like a surreal what-if story, but it isn’t that at all. Most of the 43 characters he portrays in his 75-minute one-man show aren’t transformed by the ship as much as they’re reminded of a common heritage.

Victimization? To an extent, but Beaty is after more than that. Some African-American critics have argued that blacks need to get past slavery as a central reference point, but Beaty makes the case that it has its uses in the country’s collective consciousness. As one of the characters says, Jews preach “Never forget” about the Holocaust so it makes sense that this ship is dubbed “Remembrance.”

Still, this isn’t a blame whitey exercise. Beaty’s characters go gently about their business with only the occasional burst of anger. Rodney, the central character, is called at a rehearsal for America’s Top Poets, a fictional network show – would that the networks had the taste for such a program. His father has climbed aboard the ship. On his way to get him he’s pulled over in his Beemer and, in one of the most effective pieces, imagines shooting the cop and a whole bunch of other people who’ve done him wrong, before returning to reality and his old deferential self.

Beaty does a fine job with all his characters, who represent diversity within diversity – African-Americans who are poets, gays, transgenders, young girls with AIDS and even an African-American Republican (the most stick-figured of the lot). He’s at his best, though, when performing his powerful slam poetry and pouring his soul into roots music sprinkled throughout the show.

“Emergency,” though, is more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the purpose of the slave ship isn’t to remind us of wrongs that have been done, but to equip us, black and white, to throw off our shackles and be free. In that sense, “Emergency” isn’t quite the transformative experience it hopes to be.

It’s the next best thing, though – one man’s engrossing and empathetic look at the hearts and minds of Americans who, as Beaty says, have much more in common than they often think they do.

Here he is in his own words:

And here he is on Radio Boston.