In Black No More, the Evolution of Black Music, and a Man’s Soul

Among other themes, the show holds up a mirror to those in the Black community who aspire to whiteness. The protagonist, Max Disher (played by Dixon), decides to lighten his skin after meeting a white woman, Helen Givens (Jennifer Damiano), in the Savoy Ballroom during a night out. That he’d be willing to sacrifice his identity after a chance encounter with the woman is a longstanding critique of some Black men: No matter how much they’re supported by Black women, they still see dating white women as the ultimate societal prize.

The musical also delves into the internal baggage that comes with Blackness, the weight of external pressure applied by those who look like you but don’t know your circumstances. How do you stay true to yourself without disappointing your peers? And what does it mean to be real Black anyway?

“For me, the lesson to be learned is that there is a cost,” Dixon said. “There is a cost to the choices we force each other to make to become happy, accepted members of society. It’s time for us to re-examine those costs. Is this the construct in which we can really rise and grow and evolve as a human population?”

“Black No More” begins amicably, with a flurry of Black and white ensemble dancers gliding in unison across the stage, surrounding a barber’s chair used for the skin-altering experiment. Out walks Trotter, who plays Junius Crookman, the doctor performing the procedure. He paints Harlem as a deceptive place where dreams don’t always come true. “You’ll find all things … both high and low,” he says in his opening monologue. “Here where every Black baby must try to grow.”

The music of “Black No More” largely fits this era, smoothly transitioning from swing jazz to big band to soul. Some of the verses have a rap lilt to them — Trotter, after all, is the lead vocalist of the Roots — but his writing here explores a broad range of musical textures, conjuring old Harlem while conveying music’s full spectrum. After Max becomes white, the music becomes softer and more delicate, sounding almost like bluegrass or folkish in a way. Near the end of the show, two white women sing over what sounds like an R&B track, a genre typically associated with Black women. “Black No More” is full of this sort of cross-pollination.

“I’ve always been very big on allowing the universe to sort of write the songs, allowing the material to work itself out,” Trotter said. “These songs represent the different elements of Black music. What we arrived at is something that feels like an education in the evolution of Black music, which, at its core, would be the evolution of American music.”