Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Black Super Hero Magic Mama,’ a grief-stricken mom gets comic-book counseling

L-R: Kimberly H?bert Gregory and Cedric Joe in the World Premiere of “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” a
Kimberly Hébert Gregory and Cedric Joe as mother and son in the world premiere of “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” at the Geffen Playhouse.
(Chris Whitaker)
Theater Critic

Sabrina, the single mother at the center of Inda Craig-Galván’s new play, “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” is acutely aware of the various ways her son’s life can be upended.

Gangs, drugs, street violence, the police: If Sabrina (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) is overcontrolling, it’s because she knows the dangers lying in wait for an African American teen.

Tramarion (Cedric Joe), her gifted 14-year-old, is a model youth. He’s been drilling so intensely for “Know Your Heritage,” the high school black history quiz show, that there’s hardly a historical fact not at his immediate disposal.

Sabrina has done what she can to create an ideal environment for Tramarion. But when she calls his friend Flat Joe (Noah Abbott) a thug, it seems as if she might be having a pernicious influence on her precious son. Tramarion and Flat Joe spend their after-school time in Tramarion’s bedroom innocently working on a comic book, “The Adventures of the Maasai Angel,” in which Flat Joe has given their superhero creation the face of Tramarion’s mother. But her fears aren’t easily tamped down.

Tragedy of the kind that Sabrina has desperately tried to ward off strikes in a manner that is shocking not only to her but also to the audience. (The playwright told The Times that she wrote the play while processing what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a police officer while holding a toy gun.)

The situation is horrifically credible. But it’s not easy to get a handle on “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” which is having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater under the direction of Robert O’Hara, a noted playwright himself (“Bootycandy,” “Barbecue,” “Insurrection: Holding History”).

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Part of the problem is the lack of dramaturgical rhythm. Craig-Galván writes in episodic snapshots that have a halting stage flow. The other issue is the fuzzy direction, which fails to establish a crisp and confident tone for the production. Domestic scenes grow slack, and intermittent bursts of satiric parody (of the media and other societal problem spots) are clumsily calibrated.

The staging revolves around Tramarion’s bedroom, which is poetically right, though it sets up logistical challenges. Myung Hee Cho’s straightforward set is theatrically enhanced with projections by Yee Eun Nam. A backdrop showing the neighborhood rooftops lends a storybook ambience that is just right for a play that makes critical references to “Harry Potter” and other fantasy adventure fictions.

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Kimberly Hébert Gregory in "Black Super Hero Magic Mama."
(Chris Whitaker)

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“Black Super Hero Magic Mama” improves in the second half as it ventures into the comic-book realm as a form of grief counseling. Sabrina’s labyrinthine adventures as the Maasai Angel are admittedly a little fuzzy. In charting new territory, Craig-Galván’s imagination outstrips her (and O’Hara’s) execution. But the connection between fantasy and grievous reality resonates, and Gregory, with her bottomless stare and furious silence, never loses hold of the emotional realism of her character’s mournful situation.

Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, in the role of Lena, Sabrina’s sister, is also similarly able to stay rooted during the play’s otherworldly journey. The young cast members mumble a few too many lines but are utterly natural and adorable.

Like certain dreams, “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” is more powerful in its overarching effect than in its moment-to-moment action. Impressively daring, the play escapes into a comic-book universe to better come to grips with an overwhelming — and all too real — American horror.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘‘Black Super Hero Magic Mama’’

Where: Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends April 14

Tickets: $30-$120 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 208)-5454 or GeffenPlayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes