Rotimi Agbabiaka in Manifesto at Brava Theater Center. (Robbie Sweeny)
To sell out or not to sell out? That is the question. Or is it?
Did Shakespeare consider himself a hack? Or was he too busy keeping the Lord Chamberlain’s Men afloat with the quality (and quantity) of his playscripts? Did he encounter the strange impulse in his audiences to lionize and then tear down what he had the audacity to be paid for? Did he suffer from that obtuse inclination to feel guilty once he achieved a modicum of financial stability?
What does it actually mean to “sell out”—and is that even a relevant concern in a city where market-rate rents far exceed most artists’ capacity to pay them no matter what salary they command?
It’s an age-old dilemma, and as such, one cannot expect it to be solved in a scant hour, the approximate length of Rotimi Agbabiaka’s newest solo show, Manifesto. While the struggle to reconcile the artistic conscience with the hierarchy of needs is real, in Agbabiaka’s hands it somehow becomes fun. Like a juicy gossip sesh with your “gay best friend,” Manifesto lets us listen in on Agbabiaka’s questioning internal monologue—along with all of the voices he carries with him, from fame mongers to talk-show hosts, James Baldwin to Beyoncé.
With all the bonhomie of a television personality, Agbabiaka bounds onto the stage to an Afrobeat soundtrack, to bask in audience applause. Serving Nigerian-cool realness, his energy crackles and dominates the room, but in a friendly way. “Wow,” he observes, laughing delightedly. “You have no idea what you’re in for.”
What follows is a series of humorous sketches, gently directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, skewering the theater “industry” and Agbabiaka’s role in it. He tells us right away that we don’t need “permission” to create. Don’t need to wait by the phone for that “call.” That the call comes in the very next stage moment is the punchline, and we’re whisked off to New York City where he beats out Laverne Cox for a coveted off-Broadway role (last Spring, Agbabiaka was a featured player in Playwrights Horizons’ If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka). This minor success sets off a rampage of soul-searching for which there are no definitive answers.
Does his accomplishment turn him into one of the aggressively soulless wannabes who jockey for position on that beloved game show, Show Biz Circle Jerk? How about the fact that he’s considering leaning into his African heritage as a selling point, despite having grown up in Texas?
“If you need a Nigerian, I’m your guy,” he tells his fellow contestants. “I’m taking this shit all the way to Hollywood!” On a more quixotic note, he tries to explain to his dryly unimpressed (and hilariously deadpan) father how his vision of theater is one of revolutionary ideas, even as he admits that he won’t do theater in Nigeria since there’s no money in it.
“That’s all we want, isn’t it?” expounds game-show Rotimi. “I want that Jay-Z-Beyoncé price! Cause ain’t that the revolution?”
In Agbabiaka’s animated hands, each character is lovingly lampooned, including himself and his contradictory ambitions. With his sheer physical presence, a chair, and the dramatic ambers and aquas of Jenny B./Shady Lady’s lighting design, Agbabiaka fills the room with a wealth of insider buzz and infectious laughter. The New York Times has called him “whimsical,” he makes a point of mentioning. He is a delight.
But for a show called Manifesto, written by a performer known for his affiliations with artistically idealistic organizations such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, there’s actually very little in the way of politicized content. Even a cameo appearance from God—a pep-talking, Nigerian Drag Queen—and an additional world-weary word of inspiration from James Baldwin glosses over the crux of the dilemma we started with. What is a fair price tag for the life artistic?
It’s not at all clear what Agbabiaka’s course of action for the future will be, as he considers the crossroads of conscience and commerce, or how he truly feels about putting the question to the test. For all of his playful vignettes poking fun at the addled agents, vapid influencers, and tone-deaf producers that crowd the industry, there’s no real moment of reckoning: not for them, not for Agbabiaka, and not for us.
Only the final monologue, a pithy poem entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” hints at Agbabiaka’s deeper political inclinations. It’s a brilliant, headline-parsing chant, taking to task our obsessions with celebrity, and wryly noting that “the revolution” will not “give you an endorsement deal.” A postscript, if you will, to this love/hate letter to the actor’s life, with an undercurrent of warning. Which side are you on, Agbabiaka asks his audience with a winning smile. As to determining what side he’s on, the mic drop will have to suffice as a signifier.
'Manifesto' plays through Saturday, Feb. 15, at Brava Theater Center in San Francisco. Details here.
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