Daniel Beaty is the star and author of a one-man play called Emergence-See! In it, a sunken slave ship from the past — with its cargo of bones and chains — magically surfaces alongside the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York Harbor.
The play portrays the response of 43 different characters — old, young, male, female, straight and gay, all of them black — to this puzzling event. Their reactions to the suddenly inescapable memory of slavery vary dramatically.
Beaty stands 5 feet 11 inches tall. But as he changes characters, he swells into a bigger man, slumps into the size of someone smaller, and shrinks into a child. He recites poems that he has written, and he sings like a trained opera singer — which he is.
Earlier this year, Beaty won an Obie — the Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony Award — for Emergence-See!
Beaty, 31, says he thinks of his play as "a whole community on stage."
"There are so many residual feelings and emotions and issues from the experience of slavery," Beaty tells Robert Siegel. "[Y]ou can be wealthy, working in corporate America, or you could be living in the projects, and still have some of those issues haunting you."
His own life was a study in contrasts. Beaty grew up in Dayton, Ohio, with a single-parent mother and a heroin-addicted father who was in and out of prison. Beaty's brother was a crack addict.
But Beaty also recalls the wonderful role model his mother provided for him and the mentors and teachers who encouraged him — leading, ultimately, to studies at Yale University.
"There have been constant conflicts between my upbringing and who I am in the world today," Beaty says.