It’s Not Alright, Ma

Illustration by Madison Madison

As far as I can tell, dance and dancers appear only once in Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan’s freewheeling memoir. Of Gene Kelly’s penchant for cavorting in the rain, he writes, “If I did that, I’d get pneumonia.” The line seemed pretty funny when I first read the book. After seeing The Times They Are A-Changin’, it has the force of prophecy.

When Twyla Tharp directed and choreographed Movin’ Out four years ago, she had it comparatively easy. As a band aped Billy Joel’s stylings above the stage, a corps of dancers traced the path of a generation: sliding across car hoods, chasing Charlie through the jungle, litigating a divorce. But Dylan is, as the man himself might write, a whole different barrel of monkeys. If you’re going to stage him, you can’t take a conventional approach, not with songs as freakily cosmic as “Highway 61 Revisited.”

So Tharp has created a strange world of her own: a circus full of acrobatic clowns, crazy structures of bric-a-brac, and God himself, who puts in a cameo dressed as Gandalf on stilts. Yet even as the show strains to inhabit these exotic trappings, its plot and sensibility remain wearyingly familiar. Stifled young Coyote (Michael Arden) is a baby-boomer, sixties version, whose approximate attitude is “My autocratic dad doesn’t like my picking up this hot young chick, and he can go to hell.” His father (Thom Sesma), meanwhile, is a leather-wearing, whip-cracking tyrant named Captain Ahrab, who seems like nothing so much as a baby-boomer, nineties version: “My uptight son doesn’t like my picking up this hot young chick, and he can go to hell.” Their archetypal struggle for power and the fetching Cleo (Lisa Brescia) leads us into dangerous territory.

I refer of course to the minefield that is the jukebox musical, the genre to which—sorry, dance fans—this show unshakably belongs. Even when they sound terrific, some songs feel shoehorned in, and others do violence to the grandeur of the originals: The misdeeds that Dylan imagined Jesus refusing to forgive in “Masters of War” are a trifle graver than the animal cruelty Captain Ahrab indulges in here.

If Tharp’s staging sometimes isn’t quite fair to Dylan, it’s even less fair to herself. I often wished Twyla the director had gotten the singers out of the way so I could watch Twyla the choreographer’s vibrant mix of acrobatics and dance. (There are trampolines—lots of them.) The jukebox musical once again yields a couple of lovely moments, such as the aching lyricism of “Simple Twist of Fate.” But I continue to wait for Broadway producers to discover music recorded this side of the compact-disc era and give the overexposed hits of the sixties a rest. There is, as Dylan wrote of a contemporary’s sound, “no future for that stuff in the future.”

Funnier than most serious plays and vastly smarter than most funny plays, Daniel Beaty’s Emergence-See! is the most intriguing new show of the season. Its premise is inspired: On a clear blue day in 2006, a slave ship appears in New York Harbor. At the Public, on a stage scarred by shattered timbers, the actor-playwright teases out all the provocative consequences of its arrival.

The first wave of critics to this show have had sharp things to say about it, with good reason. Beaty’s introduction of the main characters, two young men from Harlem and their mentally ill father, is clumsy; his reliance on a poetry slam is clichéd; and, even for a story that turns on the supernatural, the plot points are frequently hard to believe. But on those rickety foundations he builds all sorts of wonderful things. As Rodney and Freddie try to retrieve their father from the ship, Beaty tells stories within stories, all loaded with heart. You may think you’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of poetry slams, but watch what rich use Beaty makes of one here, how exuberantly theatrical the result is. (Beaty has a flair for the big crescendo, drawing ovation after ovation—it’s like a magic trick that gets you every time.)

Although this isn’t the first play about the complicated embrace of history by African-Americans—Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation and Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door have been there recently—the unique virtue of Beaty’s play is how seamlessly his interest in a personal embrace of personal history shifts to take in the national embrace of national history. Is the ship a blessing or an embarrassment? A source of guilt or of healing? Are reparations the answer? His view is at once genuinely universal, in the sense that we are all, like that ship, in the process of emerging into the world, becoming more fully ourselves; and pointedly topical, as when he attacks blinged-out rappers who forget where they came from.

Maybe it’s all the pundits appraising Barack Obama and the new style of politics he represents, or maybe I’d just seen all those boomers somersaulting around Broadway, but Beaty’s play left me thinking about his—my—generation. The leading playwrights who are now coming of age, a group that includes Rinne Groff and Will Power, write about the world in a way that is engaged but not doctrinaire; their plays have a disabused optimism. With his unflinching readiness to contend with all voices, left and right, and his ability to be at once idealistic and tough-minded, Beaty gives reason to hope this may be the lens through which writers now in their thirties will view the world—and reason to wonder if his future plays will put him near the head of that group. But he’ll need better titles than this one.

Is Twyla Tharp just riding a wave? More and more choreographers have been using Bob Dylan’s songs over the past decade—most famously Christopher Bruce, former director of Britain’s oldest dance company. His Rambert troupe has performed a Dylan montage titled Moonshine and an eight-minute solo mime piece set to his ballad “Hurricane.” This past year, performance artist Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker undulated to “God on Our Side” while the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation was projected onto her scantily clad body. Another dance clip, though, is a bit less arty: A silhouetted girl bops with her iPod alongside a seated Dylan, who croons “Someday Baby” from his new album, in an Apple iTunes TV spot. Times really have a-changed.

The Times They are a-Changin’
Lyrics and Music by Bob Dylan. Book by Twyla Tharp. Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

By Daniel Beaty. Public Theater/Luesther Hall. Through November 12.

It’s Not Alright, Ma