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Angela's Mixtape: Living the legacy

Play explores the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement

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Playwright Angela Eisa Davis harks back to the very beginning when she narrates her life story in Angela's Mixtape at Synchronicity Performance Group. Eisa (played by Ayesha Ngaujah) claims she was conceived on Aug. 7, 1970, a momentous date for her family, particularly her aunt and namesake, Angela Davis.

On that day, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson and two others took hostages at the Marin County courthouse in an attempt to free Jackson's brother and other prisoners. The gunmen and hostages were killed in an ensuing shoot-out, and Angela, who owned one of the guns, was charged as an accomplice to the shooting. Angela became the third woman on the FBI's Most Wanted Fugitives list as well as a living symbol of the black struggle for social justice.

Eisa's famous aunt (Minka Wiltz) serves as a constant yet remote presence in Angela's Mixtape. At times the black activist and intellectual appears behind bars: After being a fugitive for two months in 1970, she spent 18 months in jail before being tried and acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury. Eisa describes Angela as an inspirational but enigmatic figure when she grew up, and as a girl she wonders, "How do I live up to my name?"

Like A Song for Coretta, playing down the hall on 7 Stages' main stage through Feb. 24, Angela's Mixtape considers the gulf between a "Greatest Generation" of black activists and those who followed. Using a "mixtape" of songs as a narrative framework and the soundtrack to Eisa's life, the play takes musical interludes, offers moments of rap and leaps back and forth in time to show Eisa's struggle to carve out her own identity. Directed by Liesl Tommy, Angela's Mixtape offers such energy, originality and attention to detail that we forgive the playwright's tendency to scrutinize her own navel.

Eisa's description of her favorite things in the early 1980s conveys her formative influences: "I like Fame, the movie and the TV show ... I like Donna Summer, the working class people and the Soviet Union." Eisa's mother (Naomi Lavette) was an activist lawyer and a proud communist, and some of the play's sharpest moments reveal the incongruities of Eisa's childhood. She grew up poor in the liberal stronghold of Berkeley, Calif., while hobnobbing with political and intellectual luminaries such as novelist Toni Morrison. "We're oppressed? I thought we were the intelligentsia," the girl asks her mom.

A musician and actress who has appeared on HBO's "The Wire," Eisa Davis grew up talented and precocious, performing monologues from her Aunt Angela's book at demonstrations and political meetings. Wiltz and Ngaujah frequently recite the passages in unison, a device meant to provide another link to the two women, although it can undermine the episodes' powerful content. At one point Angela describes growing up in Jim Crow-era Birmingham and that her neighborhood was called "Dynamite Hill" for all the bombings of African-American homes.

Eisa didn't grow up under such overt institutional bigotry, and she grapples with such questions as "Slavery or death?" The radical politics of Eisa's elders, who routinely refer to police as "the pigs," seem particularly distant in 2008, a year when the Democratic nominee for U.S. president will either be a woman or an African-American man. Like A Song for Coretta, Angela's Mixtape implies that the generation following the Civil Rights era enjoyed more freedoms and thus never built up the same strengths as its predecessors. The playwright focuses so minutely on her own experience that she misses some opportunities, such as more deeply exploring her mother's disillusionment with communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ngaujah proves to be such a vivacious, emotionally transparent performer that we empathize with even the smallest conflicts in Eisa's life history. In the play's second half, the actress's uncharacteristic stillness conveys shame and uncertainty when she experiences a high school identity crisis. In the complex dynamic of 1980s Berkeley, teens of mixed parentage freely mingled across ethnic lines, while blacks faced peer pressure to stay with their own. Told "You look black but you act white," Eisa claims to be mixed, which she feels betrays her family and their ideals.

Jeanette Illidge, who energetically plays Eisa's cousin Cess and various other roles, adopts a hilarious Valley Girl accent as one of Eisa's white classmates. Wiltz passionately invests Angela with the posture and diction of a crusading, fiercely intelligent public figure, and we can appreciate Eisa's challenge to reach the real Angela within her glamour as a living symbol.

Angela's Mixtape feels like a sister play to Synchronicity Performance Group's season opener, My Name is Rachel Corrie, another in-her-own-words account of a young woman's political awakening. Rachel Corrie's eponymous narrator died in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in the Gaza Strip, an event that, like Angela Davis' imprisonment and trial, carries far more dramatic weight than Eisa's generally minor problems.

Apart from a protracted running time and some clunking lines, Angela's Mixtape demonstrates such an engaging voice, channeled with such enthusiasm and intimacy by Ngaujah, that the production becomes a bountiful collage of music and memory. By the end, Angela Eisa Davis finally emerges from her namesake's long shadow.

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