The world has been turned upside down in Brutal Imagination, the latest collaboration between the poet Cornelius Eady and composer Diedre Murray. A road snakes along the ceiling—two parallel lines of yellow fluorescent bulbs—and the surface of a lake shimmers with cool menace as dozens of hanging bare bulbs tremble against a wash of blue. The disorienting tilt of the design (set by Mark Wendland, lights by Kevin Adams) places us in a realm of moral distortion—a space where a mother can murder her own small children and, at least for a while, get away with blaming the crime on a phantom black man.
That, of course, is what happened in 1994 when Susan Smith rolled her Mazda into a South Carolina lake with her two kids strapped in the backseat, then told police that she’d been carjacked by a gun-wielding African American in a plaid shirt. For nine days—until Smith confessed—the cops, the media, and the public readily believed her story, and several witnesses came forward to testify that they’d actually seen the culprit stop to buy gas or check into a motel. But there never was any black bogeyman—not beyond the one that looms like a bad dream in the cultural unconscious, standing perpetually accused before a crime even happens.
Eady’s ingenious idea in Brutal Imagination is to bring this phantasmagoric, threatening everyman to life, and to let us hear what it’s like to be, as he puts it, “a stray thought, a solution,” and “the scariest face you could think of.” Through the 75-minute meditation, accompanied by haunting jazzy interludes from an offstage quartet, this Mr. Zero (Joe Morton) claims his role—”When called, I come./My job is to get things done”—and places himself within a long legacy. In a midshow tour de force, he impersonates his forebears: Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Steppin Fetchit, Buckwheat, Stagolee. Eady’s pointed, plaintive language soars in this sequence. Buckwheat laments, for instance, his family’s warnings that his white friends will leave him behind when they grow up: “They laugh/Wait ’til you’re grown./And I hear this sad place/At the middle of that world where they live,/ Where they wait for my skin to go sour.” Nominated for a National Book Award when issued as a series of poems, Brutal Imagination has a somber lyricism that evokes both horror and sadness: “The lake has no appetite,/But it takes the car slowly,/Swallow by swallow, like a snake.”
Trouble is, Eady hasn’t made drama of the material, even though he puts Susan Smith (Sally Murphy) in dialogue with her desperate apparition, and director Diane Paulus has choreographed some elegant push-and-pull between them. It’s a relief that the piece avoids tabloidy tsk-tsking: It is hardly interested in answering, “How could she kill her own precious babies?” But we learn so little about Susan’s life and mind that she, not Mr. Zero, ends up being the cipher in this story. So there’s no tension or investigation onstage, just an increasingly repetitive stated idea.
Brutal Imagination might at least have reached more emotional pitch if it had been more completely realized as a music-theater piece. Early on, Morton seems as though he needs to leap into song to attain the depth and anguish that Eady’s language can achieve on the page. Indeed, the success of Eady and Murray’s last collaboration, Running Man, a song cycle tracing a young man’s decline from promising prodigy to fugitive drug addict, came precisely from the sparks generated by the textures of the lush score and the barbed words rubbing against each other. Brutal Imagination doesn’t go that far.
This deficiency is especially disappointing given the ready analogy theater as form provides Eady’s themes. Where else does an audience so gamely give itself over to a mass illusion? Where else might we be able to observe ourselves engaging in the very process of believing a big lie? A more theatrically imagined adaptation might have offered us a revelatory experience of Brutal Imagination‘s terrible truths.