Review: Hyde Park Theatre’s Chronicles of an Indigenous Offspring
This is not a love letter, it’s a wake-up call
By Bob Abelman,
12:10PM, Tue. May 23, 2023
Zell Miller III’s Chronicles of an Indigenous Offspring offers one Black man’s reflections on racial injustice in the segregated 1970s Austin of his youth, with the intention of providing commentary about systemic racism today and the need for unaware or unconcerned white Austinites to do something about it.
The same night that it received its world premiere at Hyde Park Theatre, 2 miles southeast at Bass Concert Hall the touring stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee’s benchmark novel about racial injustice in the Depression-era Alabama of her youth – shared an opening weekend.
There’s a scene in the novel and film versions of Lee’s work where the white, liberal lawyer who defends a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman turns to leave the courtroom after losing the case to the community’s deeply entrenched racism. As he looks up at the “colored section” of the upper balcony, he sees that everyone is standing in silence as a sign of respect and gratitude. Due to the excruciating subservience it reflects and the liberal fantasy it perpetuates, playwright Aaron Sorkin intentionally cut the scene from the play.
Both Miller and Sorkin understand that their respective productions are opportunities to open white audiences' eyes a tad wider to better comprehend the Black experience in America. But while Sorkin chose a path of least resistance, Miller – an award-winning interdisciplinary theatre artist – chose varying degrees of creative and confrontational expression to get his point across. Dressed in an Adidas jogging suit and Nike sports shoes (the first signs of the cultural discordance to come) he notes that Chronicles “is not a love letter.”
Three illuminated piles of paperbacks filled with poetry, biography, and essays by Black authors – the stuff that informs Miller’s political perspective and performance material – make up much of the scenic design in an otherwise stark performance space. There’s also projected photography by Ivan Miller, whose black-and-white imagery reinforces the nostalgic aspect of the evening’s theatrics, found mostly in two very personal monologues.
One consists of Miller’s affectionate reflections on his youth while growing up in East Austin’s Springdale Gardens housing project. His memories are of joyful and carefree times with his family and friends, until the family moved north and the startled Miller, in third grade, was called the N-word for the first of many times in his life.
The other finds Miller taking on the persona of a local radio DJ who lovingly recalls the cultural landmarks and hangouts of Miller’s youth, each ending with the phrase, “Gone, pour a little liquor,” as a reminder that they have been erased from the city’s landscape and consciousness.
Both are accompanied by Thomas Wheeler’s live-performed percussive soundscape, which adds to their poignancy. These monologues weave the tapestry that is the experience of growing up in this town as one member of the small, segregated Black community that constitutes only 7.7% of Austin’s population.
Miller kicks it up a notch with an intriguing re-envisioning of a James Baldwin interview, where the essayist, gadfly, and distinctive voice of the 1960s American civil rights movement casts aspersions on modern-day Austin. There’s increasingly antagonistic slam poetry as well, also accompanied by Wheeler’s beats, with one poem finding the performer directly and passionately confronting the audience, referring to us by use of the N-word in an effort to rouse attention and generate reaction.
As a theatrical work, the talented Miller’s performance is entertaining and always engaging. His use of jazz aesthetic movement to punctuate what has just been performed and serve as a segue to what comes next is intriguing. Amy Lewis’ lighting design and Robert S. Fisher’s occasional infusion of voiceover content nicely facilitate the storytelling.
As a work intended to ruffle feathers, the one-act Chronicles should swap places with Mockingbird, where the Bass audience – largely white, older, and affluent – are prime for some in-your-face awakening. At Hyde Park Theatre – where audiences are younger, more diverse, and likely less affluent – Miller is pretty much preaching to the choir.
Hyde Park Theatre’s Chronicles of an Indigenous Offspring
511 W. 43rd, 512/479-7529
Through June 3
Running time: Approx. 1 hr., 45 mins.
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May 15, 2023
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Zell Miller, III, Hyde Park Theatre, Chronicles of an Indigenous Offspring