Should the N word ever be used? Does the meaning of the word change in different contexts? Should the word be embraced or eliminated from our modern vocabulary? These questions frame Quinn Alston’s The N Word?, an exploration of the beliefs, opinions, myths and history behind to N word from the African American perspective both within and outside of their communities.
Through an introduction by a narrator/MC, four characters – representing a broad demographic of age, social background, and gender – appear on stage, watching a pay-per-view fight on TV, and engage in a casual discussion that becomes heated after one of the characters calls the other the N Word.
With the integration of spoken word and song, the play shifts to a collection of scenes about the term – ranging from personal narratives within the characters’ experiences to broader poetic interludes shared by the entire cast.
Though the mission and purpose behind The N Word? is admirable, the play transgresses into a poorly-written PSA as opposed to full-bodied theatrical experience. The narrator’s introductions of the characters provide so much exposition that they become caricatures and remain one-dimensional from start to finish.
In addition, all the actors seemed so obsessed with remembering their lines and where to move on stage that their performances appeared uncomfortable and stilted (not to mention that the movement itself was ineffectively staged and typically involved actors blocking each other or moving back and forth on the same plane).
The majority of the songs and spoken word did very little to enhance an already limited story line, appearing in and out without any clear rhyme or reason, with the one exception being a powerful spoken word piece about the ongoing racism and capitalism in America.
The lighting transitions, marked with washes of primary colors, felt unnecessary and overdone, as if to momentarily distract the audience rather than compliment the action on stage. During curtain call, it occurred to me that the play never quite figured out what its story, tone, or style should be – and how each of these elements should be in a cohesive dialogue with each other rather than tackled individually. It also focused so heavily on justifying and explaining what the play meant that it didn’t allow the audience to make those discoveries on their own.
Following the performance, playwright/director Quinn Alston and the cast engaged the audience in a talk back session where they posed questions about the play and use of the N word. The discussion concluded with an announcement that a town hall forum would take place on July 23rd with panelists from the African-American community to speak about their history and reactions to the N word.
The town hall forum is free and open to the public and an attempt to congregate all of the audiences from the show performances to interact with one another. It’s a brilliant idea and evident that it’s fueled by Alston’s passion to ignite dialogue and continue pushing it forward. However, while passion and conversation are both necessary to make The N Word? reach its artistic potential, so is a strong production that inspires and resonates with an audience. And, unfortunately, that’s where The N Word? falls flat.
The N Word? has 4 more performances at Wonderbox, 629 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC.
Amrita rates this a 2 out of a possible 5.