Elijah McCoy was born in the mid-1840s in Ontario, Canada. He was the son of slaves who had escaped from Kentucky via the famed Underground Railroad. Elijah was raised in Michigan, and his parents somehow earned enough money for their precocious son to study engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland. He became an inventor. By the time of his death in 1929, McCoy had obtained 57 U.S. patents. His most significant invention was the self-lubricating steam engine, a device that some say revolutionized transportation. Unless you're a student of engineering history, there's a good chance you've never heard of this remarkable thinker, which is why Canadian author Andrew Moodie has written The Real McCoy, now enjoying its U.S. premiere at the Black Rep.
Moodie chronicles McCoy's life in a fluid, impressionistic manner. Six of the cast's seven versatile actors portray multiple characters that pass across the stage as if they are flowing through McCoy's mind. Because we come to The Real McCoy knowing so little, we cannot help but learn something from this likable exercise in storytelling. Yet though there is much to admire here, The Real McCoy is not without some nagging concerns, beginning with its title.
The Black Rep is selling the play as a yarn about "the man behind the phrase." In a program note, playwright Moodie suggests that even if Elijah McCoy was not the source of the idiom "the real McCoy," that at least his life "reflects the essence of that famous phrase." But the play itself never references the popular metaphor. One of the most famous lines in any John Ford movie occurs in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a newspaper publisher states, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The Real McCoy aspires to neither fact nor legend, because the author refuses to commit himself either way. The play lacks a certain grandeur. A story that needs to assert boldness instead feels gentle.
Too often historical dramas lose sight of their protagonists in an effort to tell us "what happened next." What happens here is that midway through the play, Elijah ceases to develop as a character; it is left to the actor's demeanor to inform us.
Ka'ramuu Kush admirably instills McCoy with intelligence and a reserved dignity. Early in the play, Elijah's father (Antonio Fargas, the embodiment of strength) tells his son, "Anger closes your eyes. Keep your eyes open." Kush portrays a character with open eyes. But it wouldn't hurt to see a little more anger when McCoy is the object of discrimination (his skin color must be kept secret if his inventions are to sell). Because even while Kush is impressing us with his self-control, the play is being carried by Alan Knoll and Whit Reichert, who between them enact nearly twenty different roles. Not a one of those roles is more than a cameo, yet they are fleshed out in such spirited ways that Knoll and Reichert, who should be worker drones, instead come to dominate the evening. Something is out of sync.
Which leads to another confusion here — and that is the story of how this production came to be staged. The official Black Rep press release does not mention a director. Nor in the playbill does anyone receive a director's credit for The Real McCoy. Instead we're given the line, "Staged by Tracy D. Holloway- Wiggins based on an original staging by Andrew Moodie." Holloway-Wiggins is also credited as the show's stage manager. What gives? Did Moodie not want to let go of his material? Does he claim ownership of the imaginative staging of the ice-skating and car-crash sequences? The Real McCoy is a pleasant enough evening of theater, but it's not ready to be patented. Until it is reinterpreted by fresh eyes, it cannot move on to the next level of invention.