'The Great MacDaddy' Surveys a Century of Black Experience

When “The Great MacDaddy” premiered in 1974, it emerged at a crossroads: the waning of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of blaxploitation. With an original cast that included Phylicia Rashad, Cleavon Little, Hattie Winston, and Al Freeman Jr., the musical used two grand traditions—Greek epics and African folktales—in a lofty attempt to survey the African-American experience across the century. Revivals of works so seemingly tied to their original context are often set up to fail, but this new production of “The Great MacDaddy,” the first in more than 30 years, proves its relevance today, despite a bloated script and Alfred Preisser’s indulgent direction.

The musical opens at the funeral of Great MacDaddy, a Prohibition-era bootlegger whose son (J Kyle Manzay) is ready to take up his father’s mantle. He sets off on a journey to find Wine (Charles Weldon, a member of the original cast), the keeper of his father’s “secret formula”—for moonshine, perhaps, but also for the mystery of his race and culture.

Playwright Paul Carter Harrison’s episodic quest aspires to imposing predecessors such as Homer and Virgil, but MacDaddy’s travels take him across both space and time in a way that even Odysseus couldn’t match. Beginning in 1920s Los Angeles, he traverses the country as well as the 20th century, up to the present day. Besides nodding to the oral tradition of Greek epics, “The Great MacDaddy” also incorporates tropes of African and American folklore, from trickster figures to a cameo by John Henry. Loosely based on Amos Tutuola’s “The Palm-Wine Drinkard,” Harrison’s script is marked by the rhythms of storytelling, often easing into spoken word or song. When Manzay launches into his repeated refrain “I’m the Great MacDaddy,” the listener nods along as with a familiar tune.

Some moments aren’t as eternal, remnants of the show’s blaxploitation-era roots. Among the varied characters MacDaddy encounters—a cursing baby, a group of circus workers—are caricatures of white society, such as the pursed-lipped Arkansas couple who get ready to chase MacDaddy off their pristine property. Far more menacing is Scag (the swaggering Kahlil Kain), standing in for oppressive forces throughout history, not only racism and bigotry but also violence and the pure horror of death.

With so grand a scope, it’s not surprising that the show begins to sag weightily in the second act. Despite buoyant performances, particularly the pouty but practical Shannon Dorsey, as love interest Leionah, and the effervescent Glen Gordon in several roles, MacDaddy’s travels begin to bleed into each other in one undifferentiated expanse. By the time he discovers the secret formula, the show’s running time—well beyond two hours on opening night—feels more like the century he’s crossed.

It’s the excellent cast that rescues the proceedings, invigorating the theater with the kind of energy you only find at the best party in town. In the opening scene, old MacDaddy’s funeral quickly morphs into a celebration. Despite MacDaddy’s trials, Harrison seems to say, the line between grief and joy is one that’s not so hard to cross.

Presented by Korner Theatricals, Alfred Preisser, and Diane Batson Smith, in association with the Negro Ensemble Company, Summer Stage, and Jaylene Clark, at 777 Theatre, 777 Eighth Ave., NYC. Nov. 29–Dec. 16. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com.

Critic’s Score: B-