Review: Intellects sparring lustily in ‘Marcus/Emma’

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens in the InterAct Theatre Company production of 'Marcus/Emma.' (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Raines/Plate 3)

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens in the InterAct Theatre Company production of 'Marcus/Emma.' (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Raines/Plate 3)

What do you get when you pair America’s most visionary black nationalist with America’s most radical anarchist? If you’re very lucky, you get Mary Tuomanen’s raw and elaborate “Marcus/Emma,” a world premiere from InterAct Theatre Company that opened this week. You also get two remarkable actors — Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens — playing them.

It’s improbable that Marcus Garvey, the capitalist and immigrant who preached black self-rule, and Emma Goldman, the Jewish anarchist and immigrant who preached tearing down capitalism, had a relationship even though they were famously radical contemporaries. (Both died in 1940, weeks apart.) No matter. The locally based Tuomanen — an actor-director-playwright who’s honed her craft in Philadelphia and once ambitiously played Hamlet — fabricates no pretense for her play. Here is Emma, in the same room with Marcus, and that’s that.

Emma screams at the crowd (in this case, the audience) to rise up against corporations and bosses who profit at their expense. Marcus insists that the crowd seek its own destiny by raising money to overthrow Africa’s colonial powers and fight America’ bigotry. What they have in common is rage, but that hardly makes for a play.

Tuomanen’s triumph is that she pits the two against each other in the diatribes, polemics and heartfelt discussions that follow, and pushes us into the intellectual fray. Goldman was a proponent of free love, and she and Marcus turn to that, too, more than once and without a stitch of sweatshop clothing. “I can’t just write a speech when I’m horny,” she complains as the two are failing to compose speeches and other urges take over.

It’s startling and fun and often deep in InterAct’s bracing production directed by Rebecca Wright. Plus, the way the brainy play juxtaposes the two radicals and overturns stereotypes is surprising. At one point, Emma stridently encourages a crowd to riot, to smash windows and destroy property. (In fact, she did this.) Marcus stands by her side, appalled. “This isn’t right!” he tells her, and yells to people pulling down light standards: “Stop! …That’s public property!”

“You are slaves,” Emma tells the nation’s workers. “You are not slaves,” Marcus counters in his insistence that black people — particularly black men — can and should forcefully enter the mainstream. Emma argues that when people put boots in Marcus’ face, all he can think about is wearing the boots.

Whew! It’s a thrilling ride for the audience and a ringer for the two actors, Davis and Stevens, who bring “Marcus/Emma” off without a hitch and in a way that makes the often extreme seem down-to-earth. Tuomanen has produced a script that, for its 90 minutes of performance, has several natural endings, but then continues. Each time, the next scene carries the tortured friendship and the arguments forward. And you’re happy to spend another few minutes being fascinated, again.

“Marcus/Emma,” produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 12 at the Drake, to the side of the Drake Apartments on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. 215-568-8077 or interacttheatre.org.

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