It seems wrongheaded to fault the actors in Goin' a Buffalo with playing at their characters more than actually playing them. After all, how could the show be truly camp if it were otherwise?
For camp is arguably the primary aesthetic at the base of the revival of blaxploitation films in recent years that this production patterns itself after. That frame is clearly established when a video of highly stylized "opening credits" is projected on the back wall of Erik Benson, Emily Hower and director Jay O'Berski's set. It repeats info from the program notes in an appropriately retro font, while the animated outline of a buxom dancer grooves, shimmies and brandishes a gun across a palette of lurid primary colors to soul music in the background. The rest of that back wall is covered by a giant-sized illustration of the Marvel Comics character Black Panther, one of the first black superheroes to appear in mainstream comics.
You guessed it: Playwright and activist Ed Bullins was a Black Panther for several years during the 1960s. As I said, welcome to camp.
These and other costume, set and character choices clue us in that O'Berski is visiting this genre with irony aforethought, staging its conventions with a poker face at times while ridiculing its excesses at others, elevating its outlandish economies of expression and design to—well, an amusement, if not quite an art form.
Joseph Callender may be easy on the eyes as the smooth Curt, a would-be thinking-man's thief, but his outbursts of temper against his girlfriend, Pandora, still seem contrived. As Pandora, Chaunesti Webb Lyon gives an appropriately earthy reading, even if Andy Parks' droll light designs turn her white Afro into a nimbus of pink and other colors in some scenes.
Supporting actors are more of a mixed bag. Steffon Sharpless' malcontent mooch Rich resembles an old Redd Foxx character without the punch lines, which is appropriate enough for a guy being demoted in Curt's social and criminal enterprise. But Dana Marks can't seem to get a fix—as it were—on addict prostitute Mama Too Tight. The parts of Ava Christie's Shaky that aren't buried under costumer Randi Martin's baggy garb, beret and mirror shades are concealed by equally evasive character choices. The crowd scenes seem mostly populated by people who don't know the films or the world they come from.
Lamont Reed's character, Art, is the trickster figure in the mix—his loyalties to Curt, Pandora and Mama remain in question until the end. O'Berski uses lights and sound to exaggerate and extend his moments of confrontation along the lines of Tarantino. When Reed's character goes, wide-eyed, into a martial arts stance when defending Pandora, the audience laughs knowingly. They also laugh when lights, music and actors' accents change when Art gets stoned with Pandora's help.
But those tempted to conclude that O'Berski is writing off Bullins' 1968 script for laughs must account for the degree to which the text itself mocks the dead-end schemes and dreams of its central sextet. The playwright fully exposes the flimsiness of the ties—and the ethics—that bind this group together. Clearly, they're fools if they trust one another, or the plans Curt has hatched to get them out of Los Angeles for the alleged promised land of Buffalo, N.Y.
Still, one senses that Bullins had a bit more starkness and real desperation in mind when he wrote the work 40 years ago than the wink and nudge the current production keeps giving it—and us.