BOTTOM LINE: A charismatic performer makes an uncomfortable conversation one well worth having.
Ugh, race. Racial relations. The vestiges of slavery still felt as anger and guilt. Minstrelsy. This white girl feeling very white. Last Laugh not only brings these topics to light, it lets them hang out for a while, raw and exposed, and under the veil of an old-school comedy performance where we are encouraged to laugh both at and with a black character based on stereotypes. Whatever the color of your own skin, it's impossible not to bring a part of yourself into the experience, and not to feel the discomfort that comes with the content.
What makes this show work so well is its writer/performer, Eric Lockley, a smart actor who can change characters on a dime. In Last Laugh, Lockley plays old-timey black comedians (think top hat, tails, and a big, toothy grin). They dance, they sing, and they aim to please their audience in whatever way they can. One of the comedians performs his act as a slow moving and slow thinking servant, creepily stereotypical in all the wrong ways (from a contemporary perspective, that is). Though Last Laugh is a comedy and Lockley himself is incredibly engaging, the subject matter is very dark. Should stereotypes be embraced if they are just meant for fun when presented by the minority group they imitate? What if they are major crowd pleasers, offering great success to the artists embodying them? The show touches on the possibility of a post-racial society, but mostly to consider how the remnants of slavery still haunt all Americans today. From this perspective, we've still got a ways to go.
Director Jonathan McCrory slickly enables Lockley to glide between a stage and a dressing room, portraying the different comedians in both of these worlds. Toward the end of the play the characters begin to collide and Lockley does a manic bit as they all jump into his head at the same time. The lines between fiction and reality get blurred here, and I felt a bit unsure as to the direction this confusion intended to lead the audience. For me, the most interesting component of the show was the inner struggle of a black performer trying to be unique in the entertainment industry when his biggest draw was at best stereotypical and at worst a regressive portrayal of black Americans.
Last Laugh is a highly satisfying production, and one that activates your brain as well as your heart. It's hard to not be smitten by Lockley, yet the juxtaposition of the performer and the performance lends a hightened sensitivity to the topic. It's necessary for the arts to discuss social issues, and the folks behind Last Laugh should be commended for delving deep into racial relations in the entertainment industry, how they played out "back in the day," and by proxy how we perceive them now. This show premiered before the soloNOVA Festival, and I hope it sees another life sometime soon. If and when it does return, make sure you grab a ticket.
(Last Laugh plays at the IRT Theater, 154 Christopher St. buzzer 3B, New York, NY 10014. Presented by the terraNOVA collective as part of the 10th Annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, May 22 through June 11, 2013. Tickets are $20. Purchase tickets at the door or online at terranovacollective.org.)