Neither Angela’s Mixtape nor Beo-wulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage bills itself as a musical: Beowulf, by Banana Bag & Bodice, dubs itself a “songplay,” and Angela’s Mixtape, an autobiographical work by Eisa Davis, arrives without any generic cue. Yet Beo-wulf includes 20 tunes—”Ripped Him Up Good” among them—and scarcely a minute goes by in Angela’s Mixtape without someone in the cast breaking into an anthem, a cheer, or a chant. Perhaps the plays want to avoid the stylistic connotations that a musical suggests: the conventional, the earnest, the cheery. But both works—Angela’s Mixtape, most effectively—suggest how song can surpass and circumvent the limits of spoken dialogue.
Angela’s Mixtape, produced by New Georges, is a 122-beats-per-minute bildungsroman, a hectic and moving evocation of Davis’s unconventional Oakland upbringing and relationships with her family—which includes her notorious aunt, the professor and political activist Angela Davis. Eisa Davis plays herself, from girlhood to the present, while four other actors embody her kith and kin.
At times, Angela’s Mixtape resembles a one-woman show that outgrew itself. Though Davis’s script and director Liesl Tommy demand much of every cast member, the play sometimes seems simply a lively justification for Davis’s ample skills—singing, dancing, acting, and playing concert piano. Though Davis dovetails her story with her aunt’s, she often relegates Angela (the excellent Linda Powell) to a desk at the rear of the stage. Toward the play’s end, Angela says to Eisa, “So, this mixtape wasn’t for me at all.”
But the form of the mixtape elevates the play out of indulgence: The short scenes slip by, sliding into new selections, with themes and motifs occasionally recurring, as if sampled from another track. As for the songs themselves, Whodini rubs up against a Hare Krishna chant, Human League are backed with a protest song. A teenaged Eisa insists, “Music is my refuge”—it’s also her salve, her celebration, her bulwark against loneliness, her handiest shortcut to an ever-retreating past. Davis finds, as she raps in her first speech, “tunes to play the part of my memories, linked-up reveries—synch ’em up, press Record, and start.”
The sprightly, punky songs of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage do not play the part of memories. Instead, writer Jason Craig and composer David Malloy deploy them to disconnect their play from dreary high school recollections of the epic. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Craig aims to divest the eighth-century poem from centuries of academic scrutiny.
Yet it doesn’t begin that way: Three affectless, bespectacled professors sit at a conference table and welcome us to a talk on Beowulf. Soon, Beowulf (Craig) himself arrives to contrast their pallid speech with his violent action and song. He challenges the academics, singing, “You have never had blood on your hands.” Yet one by one, the scholars transform into the three monsters—Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon. Beowulf slays each in turn.
Often the songs, though rambunctious, seem ancillary—a percussive rehash of what we’ve already seen. As to Craig’s premise—have academics really harmed the poem? Does Beowulf require so much intervention to render it exciting? Yet Craig’s script is engaging and far less willfully abstruse than his previous efforts (The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, Oh What War). Most contemporary translations don’t include anything so profane and spirited as Craig’s defense of Grendel’s murders. His monster explains, “I’m just a fun guy havin’ some fuckin’ fun.”