Two modes of storytelling collide with meaningful results in Jason Mendez’s play Supremacy (at Exit Theatre through Sat/18). The playwright repurposes Superman’s origin story by placing an ordinary black high school kid in the role of that indestructible character. By changing Clark Kent’s race, fundamental elements of that superhero fantasy come to indicate more than just how vulnerable young African Americans are in the face of prejudice and police brutality. Reincarnating the familiar Kryptonian as Connor Caine (Geoffrey Malveaux) also allows Mendez to posit a narrative of empowerment. This approach highlights the way that racist Americans consider blacks to be, culturally speaking, different or alien — like Kal-El from that distant planet. In public, Connor’s suspect for simply waking up and walking through the world in his own skin.

When we meet him, Connor’s hanging out with his girlfriend Alex (Wera Von Wulfen) after school. They’re having a friendly debate about people with and without privilege in the context of activist movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The serious yet flirtatious banter they’re engaged in shows the audience that they like and respect each other’s imaginations and intellects. Their conversation is abruptly interrupted when a thief (Gary Hughes, in one of many roles) bumps into them and runs off, probably with Alex’s phone. A police officer (Kyle Goldman) appears and confronts them. The biased cop thinks that Connor is the offender — Alex is white. Their interaction escalates and the officer then shoots Connor several times until he falls to the ground.

Gary Hughes as Jamal (l) and Geoffrey Malveaux as Connor Caine in ‘Supremacy’. Photo by Jay Yamada

Fourteen framed photographs of African Americans who’ve been killed by the police — including Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland — set the tone for Supremacy. Their images hang on the wall just outside the theater entryway. It’s a portrait gallery that’s steeped in tragedy. And there’s a blank mirror at the center of the display. If you take a selfie, your face will appear inside it. At its core, this is what Mendez asks of the audience. He wants us, regardless of our race or background, to see what it would feel like to see ourselves in their faces, wrongly persecuted on that very same wall. His play humanizes the stories of these black men’s and women’s lives so we won’t see them as sensational headlines or statistics.

After Connor gets shot, Mendez shifts the narrative around in time and the internal logic of the world he’s created begins to suffer. As a coherent structure with a recognizable beginning, middle and end, Supremacy often loses its way. The play tries to account for his hero’s mythological past while at the same time keeps one foot in a more realistic present. From scene to scene, it’s also difficult to get a sense of place. The set design, with graffiti and torn posters, suggests outdoor urban grit only. If there had been the suggestion of interior spaces too, that might have helped to orient the audience and to give the pacing some breathing room.

The play tries to account for its hero’s mythological past while at the same time keeping one foot in a more realistic present. Here, Geoffrey Malveaux plays Connor. Photo by Jay Yamaha

On balance, it’s that real world, where black people get senselessly shot, that loses sway to the mystery surrounding Connor’s birth and the recent discovery of his powers. Connor’s relationships with Alex, his adoptive parents and a school bully arrive on stage but stall instead of developing. His father Anthony (Scott Van de Mark) teaches his son how to box in one scene and is abruptly written out of the story in the next. His mother (Valerie Fachman) is a recurring, steadier presence but comes across as a series of heightened emotional states, a reactive rather than fully formed character in her own right.

Mendez might have been more intrigued by the idea of a bulletproof black man than he was in writing a kitchen sink drama. Kimber Lee’s play brownsville song (b-side for tray), which Shotgun Players produced in 2017, takes a much more straightforward approach to a similar story. Lee wrote a memory play in which a young black man is mourned by his grandmother and sister. It’s a homely, domestic story that’s an exploration of both rage and grief but it doesn’t offer any easy solutions or actions. Neither does Supremacy. But it does reinforce the need to tell Connor’s story, and the stories of black Americans like him who have been so arbitrarily killed — not by reading a journalist’s impassive obituary, but from a first person’s impassioned point of view.

SUPREMACY
Through Sat/18
Exit Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here