Tariq Trotter took his first meeting on the making of George S. Schuyler’s 1931 satirical Afrofuturist novel More black in a musical in 2015.
The timing was fortuitous. Trotter sat down to talk about Schuyler’s novel Harlem Renaissance with writer John Ridley and director Scott Elliott right after seeing a brand new show at the Public Theater called hamilton.
“I’ve never been a big fan of musicals,” says Trotter, better known as Black Thought of The Roots, the hip-hop collective from Philadelphia and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon home band.
“hamilton really opened my eyes and let me know that anything and everything is possible.
This idea is tested in More black, the off-Broadway musical on stage at the Pershing Square Theater Center in Midtown Manhattan. Tickets are available at www.thenewgroup.org.
Trotter has a starring role as Dr. Junius Crookman, a scientist with suspicious motives who aims to “solve America’s racial problem” by making black people white through a process he invented, “accomplished by nutrition electricity and glandular control”. If everyone was the same color, More black wonders, does racism still exist?
The show, which is due to run until February 27, has been airing to packed and diverse theaters since previews began last month, leading trade publication Showbiz411 to ask, “Is Off Broadway has another hamilton? ”
The show features an impactful creative team. Alongside Ridley, Oscar winner for 12 years of slavery and creator of the television anthology series American Crime, and Elliott, founder of the New York theater production company The New Group, the choreographer is Bill T. Jones, Tony winner for spring awakening and Fela!
Trotter has written lyrics for over 30 new songs. And with keyboardists (James Poyser of The Roots and Anthony Tidd of The Roots extended family), as well as music supervisor Daryl Waters, Trotter has also written music in an array of styles, from traditional musical theater to blues, reggae , southern rock, country, and even a bit of hip-hop.
“Tariq is a marvel,” says Jones, who will bring The deep blue seahis dance production with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, at the Presser Foundation Stage at the Mann Center on April 29-30.
“He’s a high-level rapper, and some of his rhymes are on the level of Noel Coward. …He really spins words and language that way. My husband came to the show and there’s a song Helen’s character sings, and he asked me, ‘Did Tariq write that? Or was it a Dolly Parton song? ”
More blackThe cast of is led by Brandon Victor Dixon, who took over the role of Aaron Burr from Philadelphia singer-actor Leslie Odom Jr. in the original hamilton production .
Dixon plays Max Disher, who volunteers to be the first case in hopes of improving his chances of advancement in a white-dominated society. When the procedure succeeds, he faces a series of moral dilemmas when he is greeted by racist white characters who would have previously looked down on him.
The idea for the play was pitched with Ridley, who told The New York Times that he was seduced by “the wit and the unbridled satire. Much of the writing was timely and timeless and painful and painless he said of Schuyler’s novel, which author Ishmael Reed called an “American classic.”
Ridley set out to tackle Black No More in film or play form. Elliott thought it might work as a musical.
“If you can locate a human element in a satire, it can be a great musical,” Elliott said, citing Chicago and Singing In The Rain.
“I’ve always loved The Roots,” says Elliot. “For their music, their progressive politics and the genius of Tariq. I thought he might understand this piece and be able to write it.
When the rapper learned Black no more premise, “I thought it was crazy,” says Trotter, 48, speaking from his home in Maplewood, NJ “I thought it was bold. It wasn’t easy to make up my mind.”
Trotter knew that Schuyler’s source material was potentially explosive. “It definitely seems a bit dangerous. But I have the impression that conscience is dangerous. The truth is dangerous. Art is dangerous.
More black includes scenes and songs where an incendiary word is said aloud. When he first heard a white character in the first act at a matinee last weekend, the audience gasped.
“Using the N-word is something that takes the audience out of the satire and the comedic element, more theatrical and into something real,” says Trotter.
“Anytime you hear it, it’s a wake-up call, even if it’s just for your discomfort. It’s part of the American lexicon. John and I made the decision to face it head-on. It may not be comfortable, but it’s something we all have to deal with, just as we have to learn to interact and coexist with each other.
READ MORE: Black Thought tells its Philly story in new Audible memoir
More black is part of the ever-expanding creative universe of The Roots which also includes 7 years, Trotter’s entry into the Words & Music series on Amazon’s Audible audiobook service and the directorial debut of partner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Wasn’t Televised), which was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary film.
Trotter says he has eight albums worth of new material stored on his phone. Some might be Roots records — the band haven’t released a new album since 2014 — and some might be released as currents of thought rubric he uses for solo works, which have reaffirmed his stature as one of the great MCs of all time.
Black Thought and Questlove also appear in animated form in Get up, sing, the new short educational music series for kids streaming on Disney+.
Write for a wide range of characters in More black “It was a really exciting exercise for me,” says Trotter. “I think it made me a better storyteller and a more competent writer.”
“When Lin-Manuel Miranda came to see the preview of the show,” Trotter proudly says, “the first thing he said to me was that there are more ideas in those numbers than most shows I’ve seen in a long time.”
More black Originally slated to open in fall 2020. Although its reopening coincides with the omicron push – proof of vaccination is required and mask-wearing is mandatory – attendance has been strong.
“I really hope the show has a long life,” says Trotter, who is on furlough from fall on during Black no more opening race.
“It’s still really a work in progress. We are all still engaged in the creative process. So hopefully the show lasts long enough to evolve into the meaningful and powerful piece it has the potential to be.
He has many other commitments – stand-up is a recent passion. “But I would like to continue playing in it,” he says. “I don’t want to do one thing forever. But this is something that is still new to me. It’s super demanding, but it’s great fun and engaging in a different way. So I love that.