Arts & Theatre

‘Black Super Hero Magic Mama’ gives voice to black mothers

Geffen Playhouse production provides a new and realistic perspective of police brutality and news coverage in the form of a comic book.

After a young, unarmed black boy is shot by a police officer, playwright Inda Craig-Galvan delves into one of America's constant social battles through the eyes of a mother in her play, "Black Super Hero Magic Mama." Instead of following the trope typically overplayed in mainstream media, Craig-Galvan uses comic book stories to communicate the healing process and the nuanced realities of being a person of color in America.

The play's world-premiere production is currently running at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre in Geffen Playhouse under Robert O'Hara's direction. It opens in reality: the bedroom of Tramarion Jackson (Cedric Joe). Myung Hee Cho's scenic design places a bed on a revolving stage to represent the home of the Jacksons. Single mother Sabrina Jackson (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) wants the best for her son. She pushes him to do his best in school and succeed in the Know Your Heritage Bowl where he competes with other kids on his knowledge of important black figures in history. He is your everyday kid, but he isn't.

Sabrina Jackson always tells her son to not get involved with the wrong crowd, referring to his best friend Flat Joe (Noah Abbott). Abbott's character and story are there, but his acting lacks listening which would sharpen the relationship between Tramarion and Flat Joe. Flat Joe is not who Sabrina thinks he is. He is an artist who works on a comic book with Tramarion. Not only does this relationship reveal an inner conflict for the family duo, but it also represents the precautions people of color must take to survive in America.

For people who question why black and brown people are scared to wear hoodies at night or freeze at the sign of a police officer, this show will either enlighten them or go over their heads. It all depends on if they are willing to listen to the speechless mother. Even though she is silent from depression, Hérbert Gregory's frozen state adds power to the moments when she responds. As she sits on her son's empty bed, two broadcast reporters stand atop a platform behind her to report on the shooting. Reporters Connie Wright (Reiko Aylesworth) and Tom Blackman (Kevin Douglas) use the same rhetoric we hear today. They repeat the safe words journalists use for these moments: "tragedy" and "confusion."

"Black Super Hero Magic Mama" depicts the reason we need more reporters of color and conscious reporting. When they are off the air, the two reporters begin to plan how they will get Sabrina to talk to them. They brainstorm every possible angle to get all the sob stories on the air. They tokenize and take advantage of the heartbroken mother, much like some reporters today. Journalists use the same photos and dig up the same information on the dead to paint a negative image of black and brown people. Although Tom is a black reporter, he still digs the same way any other reporter does. What nuances his character is how he searches for interviews who are not the mother. Although that conflict of identity and reporter is there, it could've been amplified in the script to exemplify what reporters of color have to face when trying to make it in a white-dominated field.

The second half of the play lives in the world of a comic book with Sabrina Jackson as the hero, Maasai Angel. Her best friend Lena Evers (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) takes the role of the comedic narrator as Sabrina faces everyone close to her son and the shooting. The comic book narrative represents the inner journey Sabrina must take to move forward. It all leads to her coming face to face with her son. As she breaks down trying to get the answers, he sits calmly. This encounter is heart-wrenching to watch and depicts a goodbye many mothers of color don't get in these situations.

From an unconsented hair touch by the white reporter to the incorporation of a bed in each scene, Robert O'Hara's direction transports the story through space and time in a succinct manner that doesn't dwell too long in one moment. It adds variety to every relationship the mother has. As the show shifts through time and worlds, the set turns and changes. However, its constant movement becomes a distraction that loses its ability to transition the play from one scene to the next. It helped most when it turned to show a transition in time.

Tramarion Jackson represents something much larger than one instance. If it isn't a trophy, it's a wallet or a toy or a hairbrush. It could be anything. Police can turn anything into a gun when they succumb to the black stereotypes that have yet to be broken down. When deciding on a photo of what image of Tramarion to use in the broadcast, the reporters stick with the most offensive photo available. Craig-Galvan delivers a repeated story in a more comedic fashion that doesn't mock it but makes it easier to consume. "Black Super Hero Magic Mama" adds truth to a story typically reported with false interpretations. It shows the struggle black mothers and sons face under today's social pressures without making them the "other." This time, the public gets to see the truth: the mother is strong.

“Black Super Hero Magic Mama” runs now through April 15th at Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse Noise. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.