It comes as no surprise to learn that NSangou Njikam’s I.D. premiered, in July, at South Africa’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival. The play confronts and exposes questions of worldly identity that transcend boundaries. Commissioned by Penn State University, and directed for New Horizon Theater by Steve Broadnax, I.D. forces us to recognize our interconnectedness with everyone through our very DNA.
Of course, the idea that we’re all the same is difficult for some to accept. (One need only scan a newspaper.) So this play — a series of linked vignettes informed by hip-hop culture — features some fairly harrowing moments involving race and our image-based assumptions. Aaron Densley plays Undercover Michael, a police officer blinded by racism to those he refers to as “prison-fillers” — Hispanics and African-Americans — yet who must come to terms with learning that he has Sub-Saharan Africa in his DNA. (In a post-show discussion, Densley himself said that he is 11 percent Subcontinental Indian, and discussed how this knowledge changed entirely how he looks at other people and the world at large.)
Nonetheless, the play has humor. How can a work about how people form their identities not? The issue surrounds us, and Njikam prods at that, with the underlying question of “Why?” Malena Ramirez’s character is repeatedly asked, “Are you Brazilian?” To which she snaps, “No, I’m offended.”
The cast are clearly skilled in stage work, and the production is more than a university project. Across a minimalist set, the actors bounce off each other through physicality, dance and MCing. It’s fast, breaks down the forth wall, and the audience can’t help but watch it.
New Horizon is the perfect vehicle for this U.S. premiere. The company specializes in African-American culture and the question of identity, socially and historically. Such issues are relevant for an historic melting-pot like Pittsburgh, and they’re issues that this performance’s audience were very enthusiastic to see dealt with. Such discussions have formed a media narrative recently, but few conversations are as personal and engaging as the one I.D. generates.