On the cover of the Type/Caste program, Rotimi Agbabiaka, the star of this one-man show, appears in whiteface. The image of a black man changing the color of his skin jumps off the page with the weird energy of a bad dream. In Agbabiaka’s experience, his nightmare is trying to find a role as a black actor that isn’t an offensive cliche or stereotype. Before the show even begins, the photograph suggests that decent parts haven’t been easy to find.
Earlier this year, Agbabiaka appeared in two plays at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. When he was on stage, it was clear that he had a gift for communicating the inner lives of his characters to the audience. His thoughts and emotions felt palpable even at the back of the house. For those few hours, Agbabiaka became somebody else. The actor was in complete command of his soul’s peculiar alchemy.
In Type/Caste, he is wholly and furiously inhabiting himself. The subtitle — A Solo Show About Acting While Black (& Queer) — indicates the main themes that bind the piece together. For a solo show to work, the performer has to have more than enough charisma to hold the audience’s attention for the duration. It’s also a platform to show us what he can do. Like Whoopi Goldberg in her one-woman show, the one that made her a star, Agbabiaka can do it all. As evidenced here, he has an astonishing range that has been sorely underused. He is hungry to do so much more.
In one remarkable set piece, Agbabiaka sets up an acting audition as if it were an episode of the television show Shark Tank. In it he plays himself, a casting agent, a snooty theatre director and a famous actor. After switching between each character in rapid fire exchanges, he finally auditions for them and for us. He starts with lines from a Shakespeare play then moves on to recite a Willy Loman monologue from Death of a Salesman. Agbabiaka delivers expert and moving line readings. But the response he receives is a mess of condescension.
The agent is puzzled by his choice to recite a speech from Shakespeare. She insists that he’d never be cast in one of his plays because “black people didn’t live in England at the time.” One of the judges can only picture him as a gangster. The remarks from the panel, however absurd, are based on Agbabiaka’s autobiographical experience as a working actor. Feedback like this must be maddening for someone as bright and talented as he is.
The frenetic pace of becoming one character after another slows down when Agbabiaka’s vision of god, or, rather, goddess materializes. He becomes a female African deity in a vividly patterned dress and expansive head scarf. She is there to embrace his queerness and to counteract his father’s Christian homophobia. It’s at this point in the performance that his storytelling skills truly come into focus. When Agbabiaka gives himself permission to simply stay inside of a single character, the show resonates well beyond his virtuosity.
He begins and ends Type/Caste by singing. On top of accents, his richly imagined writer’s life and those aforementioned acting chops, Rotimi Agbabiaka can also belt out a song. After lip-synching the brooding lyrics of “Corporate Cannibal” by Grace Jones, his own voice brings a moment of uplift to the stage. Like the Magic Theatre plays he starred in, Agbabiaka leaves you wanting to hear more.
Type/Caste, through Oct. 1, at Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., 415-641-7657.