Within milliseconds of Manifesto’s opening, you know you’re in the hands of an electric performer. Written and performed by Rotimi Agbabiaka and directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, this show is a one-man lightning bolt of insight and delightful bitterness. It runs through Feb. 15.
Rotimi enters the stage grooving, instantly connected and talking to the audience, to the techs in the booth, and then leading everyone in a call-and-response. He wastes no time jumping into the performance, a seamless transition into a commanding presence. We’re invited to something confessional and vulnerable, funny and contradictory. It’s a piece about his personal woes and journey of trying to make it as an artist, finding the balance between success in the theater world and creative honesty and impact. While this may sound like well-trod territory—a classic battle for the soul of an artist—it’s Rotimi’s portrayal of the exhausting politics and suffocating homogeneity of theater and popular culture that makes Manifesto unique.
With a magnetic performance and creative lighting and sound design, Rotimi brings an empty stage to chaotic life, inhabiting an endless parade of captivating characters and scenes. There’s a calloused old New York agent, pondering how to “sell” Rotimi to the masses while sucking down cigarettes and stomping stray cockroaches; a dialogue with his patriarchal Nigerian father about what “off-Broadway” means; a poignant monologue from a resurrected James Baldwin about giving everything to art; and, of course, a fictional reality-show cast of struggling actors squabbling and peacocking to establish their “brand.” Rotimi bounces from one manic moment to the next in a dialectical hurricane, throwing competing feelings and perspectives against each other to arrive at some kind of understanding of art and its future.
Rotimi explores the unfortunate emptiness and hypocrisy behind many “woke” buzzwords and lip service to change and representation, as well as the soulless politics of trying to see and be seen. The latter includes unsuccessful grant applications to the Bezos Family Foundation, the predictable taste of “BuzzardFeed” and “Unfair Vanity Magazine,” the advent of cultural consultants, rumors of an all-white Raisin in the Sun. Rotimi never condescends or suggests he’s better than the industry he skewers; he’s honest about his needs within it, and his own vanity. He embraces the contradiction and inconsistencies of needing an audience but not wanting to be defined by them.
It’s a short and sweet show, and while some segments may have room for further development or detail work, the fast-moving and cyclic nature of his tale makes it work. Rotimi comes up against the disheartening reality that even protests against hollow culture are absorbed, flattened and commodified by culture. The play abruptly ends with him struggling to find a way to portray something real, something honest, something that changes “how people think.” “The revolution will not be tweeted,” he cries, and we’re left cautiously optimistic about what comes next from this talented force of nature and his creative and spiritual reckoning.
Dates: Now through February 15
Where: Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St.
Get tickets here.