The tangy DC streets or a soulful bowl of NOLA. From Gumbo to Mumbo celebrates each from its first notes—for what writers and performers Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown do is something just shy of sing. This show is about their roots and life routes. Which, predictably, also include a lot of pain. From being men (who suppress emotion). From being Black. From being Black men. In America. But, there is also joy. Love and friendship.
From Gumbo to Mumbo, unlike its first, more youth friendly iteration, starts with a countdown from synchronized multiple screens scattered across the Keegan stage. At zero, a Stars Wars scroll commences and explains the show’s premise: two Black men finding and defining identity and home in “Trump’s America” using rap/hip hop, poetry, parody, etc. Anderson and Lawson-Brown enter and rap battle about their hometowns, with Anderson declaring, “I bleed New Orleans.” Lawson-Brown makes it known he hails from DC’s Southeast.
From the on, it’s verbal linguistics at peak form—lyrical, rhythmic, explosive, clever, and biting. Each segment a different flavor, from a take on Family Feud where the two spar over the superiority of the made-in-DC Mumbo sauce or Gumbo (“swamp stew”), New Orleans’ hometown dish, to a straight-up song about New Orleans.
As good as Lawson-Brown and Anderson are together, the best pieces are solo endeavors. Lawson-Brown’s “These Shoes”—a spoken word poem delivered in a voiceover—shows how he can move. As only a break-dancer can. He weaves and bops, throws roundhouse kicks, and steps, taking us on his journey.
“These shoes are history with laces…these shoes have slid across stages, flipped over racial blockades, kicked bad habits…these shoes are magic. When worn, I become a dancing machine. Danced out of murder attempts. Danced out of suicide attempts. Into parenthood. Out of relationship. Into. Out of. Into heartbreak.”
Anderson dons an apron for a piece we’ll call “Bisquick”, wherein he imagines he’s a flapjack. Bottom of the stack. Burned. Being fed crock from Betty and Pillsbury. Pulling out the familiar, curvy shaped bottle of a female figure, he says, “But she, she makes circumstances sweet. Raised in the log cabin on Maple Street, by her mama’s sister, Jemima. Skin brown as the fingernails of mother earth’s masseuse, she dances like a lava lamp’s mama, and her taste…(kiss) mmm…passionate fruit paste, jellybean juice, gummy bear gravy.”
Anderson and Lawson-Brown prove they’ve got some acting skills in a few pieces, but the heavier vignettes, where they stick closer to spoken word poetry and hip hop performances, succeed more. In those, the power with which they imbue their words almost make them feel like prayers for peace. Given that Lawson-Brown is an HIV educator, in addition to a poet who hosts Spit Dat DC at Busboys and Poets, it makes sense that this is a show aiming to make a difference. That wants to be heard. Because, as Lawson-Brown’s choice of attire and some tolling bells make clear—Black Lives Matters.
Anderson, a former science teacher who runs two performing-arts based education programs (Spoof School and C.R.U.N.K) and co-hosts Spit Dat, goes for the jugular on a piece about language, which opens with footage of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump lamenting about people not using English in the U.S. of A. First, for the record, America has no official language. One more time: America has no official language. Anderson, plays with words and accents, spitting British slang, saying “Act like you know, speak English, like you be waving the Union Jack. Not knowing Jack about the Union.” But wait, America is a melting pot.
“If every element in the melting pot has a different melting point, then how does melting Mexican meld with melting WASP? The answer? Segregation sauce.”
The recipe? Everything from draft dodging to a hypocritical Uncle Ben Carson, to a “delightfully dysfunctional democratic dictatorship,” and no Spanish, under any circumstance. This is to speak American, and to speak American is to speak in contradictions, to speak with hate, and to always cede the floor to those in power—which is whiteness, white men.
Even at their most vulnerable and critical, Anderson and Lawson-Brown do bring touches of humor (Lawson-Brown’s observations of a Trader Joe’s—that ubiquitous mediocre grocery chain—taking the place of a high school for the mathematical and science gifted is great). This iteration of Gumbo is also definitely not for the kids (cursing, more overtly political, etc.). The live stream aspect, save for a few sound issues that made the volume drop, actually worked well—smooth scene transitions, some nice camera work that added to the performance.
Delivering a show like this to an empty stage can’t be easy. Normally, this show, sans COVID, would feed off of the energy of people, growing louder and bolder and wilder with the emotions it elicits. And being that it is designed to elicit emotions, emotions it would well earn in front of a live audience.
From Gumbo to Mumbo is fresh, lively, and intellectually and emotionally stimulating.
From Gumbo to Mumbo
from Keegan Theatre
plays in rep with Trans Am through November 29, 2020.
Running time: 1 hour
Tickets: $30 per household. Details here.
From Gumbo to Mumbo by Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown. Directed by Duane Richards II. Featuring Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown. Production: Matthew J. Keenan, Set Designer/Master Carpenter; John D. Alexander, Lighting Designer; Kaitlyn E.M. Sapp, Sound Designer/Engineer; Jeremy Bennett, Multimedia Designer; and Shee Shee Jin, Video Engineer/Production Assistant. Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.