Vital Signs | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Vital Signs 


Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

A kinetic flow of energy can become its own message: a play's words can be less important than the power an actor puts behind them. In Vital Signs no single ingredient--the poetic script by William S. Carroll, solo performance by Carl Barnett, or percussion, vocal, and guitar score by George Blaise--seems destined for glory. But as staged by Hrukhti Men Ab for the Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre, the three elements fuse into a power-packed piece of anguished art, a 75-minute stream-of-consciousness confessional by a young black man.

Taking us on what he calls a "trip through a self-contained universe," the Narrator describes his too-short life from the jail cell where he died under police torture. Carroll's narrative focuses on the man's resonant if familiar memories--getting the wrong shoes for school, fights at recess, amateur bouts at a gym, working a paper route with precision, rage when a boss calls him "nigger," a teenage infatuation that sends him into rhapsodies over a radiant future.

Though the Narrator has a bountiful and patient grandmother, other influences in his life are not so noble. His brother, who equates manhood with hardness, ends up in jail. After the Narrator does a miserable stint with the Marines, like Jacob Zulu he seeks an answer in action and joins a militant separatist group. He's subsequently jailed himself and loses everything, becoming what Huey Newton called a "revolutionary suicide."

Barnett shadowboxes unseen opponents, leaps or collapses with his good or rotten luck, and rapidly dons and doffs several outsize characters (among the best are a sponging preacher and the grandmother), compressing the fragments of a broken life into one man's restless search for a destiny. The pity of it is that the Narrator never finds one. Only at the end, as he wraps his prison blanket around him like a shroud or priestly gown, does he glimpse a kind of hope, intoning that "In dream time you are never alone."

Blaise's supple score is as palpable a presence as Barnett's athletic pacing, superbly reflecting every twist in the action, shading of the story, and emotion implied or explicit. As performed by Aum Mu Ra, Ben Ako Sesh Hek, Danjuma Gaskin, Shepsu Aakhu, and the director, the music fills every moment; it and Barnett's wired portrayal together never allow the energy to drop an amp. The audience is drained long before Vital Signs is over, and probably for quite some time afterward.

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