Tariq Trotter took his first meeting about making George S. Schuyler’s 1931 satiric Afrofuturist novel Black No More into a musical back in 2015.
The timing was fortuitous. Trotter sat down to talk about Schuyler’s Harlem Renaissance novel with writer John Ridley and director Scott Elliott right after seeing a brand-new show at the Public Theatre called Hamilton.
“I was never a huge fan of musicals,” says Trotter, better known to most as Black Thought of The Roots, the Philadelphia hip-hop collective and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon house band.
“Hamilton really opened my eyes, and let me know that anything and everything is possible.”
Trotter has a starring role as Dr. Junius Crookman, a scientist with suspect motives who aims to “solve America’s race problem” by turning Black people white through a process he’s invented, “accomplished by electrical nutrition and glandular control.” If everyone was the same color, Black No More asks, would racism still exist?
The show, scheduled to run through Feb. 27, has been playing to packed, diverse houses since previews began last month, leading trade publication Showbiz411 to ask: “Does Off Broadway Have Another Hamilton? ”
The show boasts a heavy-hitting creative team. Along with Ridley, an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave and creator of the TV anthology series American Crime, and Elliott, founder of New York theater production company The New Group, the choreographer is Bill T. Jones, Tony winner for Spring Awakening and Fela!
Trotter wrote lyrics for more than 30 new songs. And with keyboard players (James Poyser of The Roots and Anthony Tidd of The Roots’ extended family), plus music supervisor Daryl Waters, Trotter also wrote the music in an array of styles, from traditional musical theater to blues, reggae, Southern rock, country, and even a little hip-hop.
“Tariq is a wonder,” says Jones, who will bring Deep Blue Sea, his dance production with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company, to the Presser Foundation Stage at the Mann Center on April 29 and 30.
“He’s a high-level rapper, and some of his rhymes are at the level of Noël Coward. ... He really spins words and language in that way. My husband came to the show and there’s a song that the character Helen sings, and he asked me, ‘Did Tariq write that? Or was that a Dolly Parton song?’ ”
Black No More’s cast 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 bettering his opportunities for advancement in a white-dominated society. When the procedure succeeds, he’s confronted with a series of moral dilemmas when he’s welcomed by racist white characters who would previously have despised him.
The idea for the play initiated with Ridley, who told the New York Times he was taken with the “wit and unbridled satire. So much of the writing was timely and timeless and painful and painless,” he said of Schuyler’s novel, which author Ishmael Reed has called “an American classic.”
Ridley aimed to do tackle Black No More either as a film or a straight play. Elliott thought it could work as a musical.
“If you can locate a human element in a satire, then it can be a great musical,” Elliott said, citing Chicago and Singing In The Rain.
“I’ve always loved The Roots,” Elliott says. “For their music, and their progressive politics, and Tariq’s genius. I thought he might understand this piece and be able to write it.”
When the rapper learned of Black No More’s premise, “I thought it was crazy,” says Trotter, 48, speaking from his home in Maplewood, N.J. “I thought it was audacious. It wasn’t easy to get my head around.”
Trotter knew Schuyler’s source material was potentially explosive. “It definitely feels a little dangerous. But I feel like consciousness is dangerous. The truth is dangerous. Art is dangerous.”
Black No More includes scenes and songs where an incendiary word is said out loud. When first heard from a white character in the first act during a matinee last weekend, the audience gasped.
“The use of the N-word is something that snaps the audience out of the satire and the comedic, more theatrical element and into something that is real,” says Trotter.
“Every time you hear it, it’s a wake-up call, even if it’s only to your discomfort. It’s part of the American lexicon. John and I made the decision to confront it head-on. It may not be comfortable, but it’s something we all have to deal with, just like we have to learn to interact and coexist with one another.”
Black No More is part of The Roots ever-expanding creative universe that also include 7 Years, Trotter’s entry into the Words & Music series on Amazon’s Audible audiobook service and his partner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Would Not Be Televised), which has been nominated for a best documentary film Oscar.
Trotter says he has eight albums’ worth of new material stored on his phone. Some could be Roots records — the band hasn’t released a new album since 2014 — and some could be released under the Streams of Thought rubric that 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 Rise Up, Sing Out, the new short-form educational musical series for kids streaming on Disney+.
Writing for a wide range of characters in Black No More “was a really exciting exercise for me,” Trotter says. “I think it’s made me a better storyteller and a more proficient writer.”
“When Lin-Manuel Miranda came to see the show’s opening preview,” Trotter says with pride, “the first thing he said to me was that there are more ideas packed into these numbers than most shows I’ve seen for a long time.”
Black No More was originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. Though its re-opening coincides with the omicron surge — 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 leave from Fallon during Black No More’s opening run.
“It’s still really a work in progress. We’re all still engaged in the creative process. So I hope the show goes on long enough to evolve into a meaningful and powerful a piece that it has the potential to be.”
He has many other commitments — stand-up comedy is a recent passion. “But I would like to keep acting in it,” he says. ” I don’t want to do any one thing forever. But this is something that is still new to me. It’s super demanding, but it’s very fun and engaging in a different way. So I love it.”