Upon opening, the Magic Theatre’s empty stage hints at the chaotic, startling play that will unfold over the next 90 minutes. We hear sounds of splashing water, we see mysteriously glowing doorways, a baby is crying—and someone is being whipped. 

The sounds fade and the play—Marc Anthony Thompson’s “The N- Lovers,” a sort of musical, metatheatrical mix of comic tropes with a powerful story at its core—opens on a scene that’s so spare as to be breathtaking.  

Two Black men in loincloths (Rotimi Agbabiaka and AeJay Marquis Mitchell)—one with a bone through his nose—stand at a water cooler chit-chatting. It turns out they are on a slave ship heading for Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve been sold a bill of goods by a brochure advertising an oasis in the “promised land.” 

“I have a dream and a plan,” rhapsodizes one.  

It’s not the only time that the canny Thompson will place familiar phrases in the mouths of his characters to conjure various effects. 

A visitor from the future (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) suddenly appears to inform the men that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. “The pictures looked nice,” sighs one. “Did you not read the fine print?” says the visitor sternly. 

From that powerful opening scene, the play gets increasingly tumultuous, as directed by the author and Magic/Campo Santo Artistic Director Sean San José—confusingly so at times, at other times feeling like nothing less than a punch in the guts. 

At the heart of the play is a (fictionalized) version of the true story of a couple who escaped slavery in Georgia. Ellie (Aidaa Peerzada) and Willie (Agbabiaka) are slaves on a plantation in Macon, Georgia, who decide to escape for a presumed better life in Boston. 

Along the way, they murder many white people who are impeding their journey, by any means necessary, as the saying goes, and with any weapon at hand, at one point a crucifix.  

The altogether excellent cast is Black; white plantation owners and other white folks have a sign on them: “White.” 

AeJay Marquis Mitchell is among the excellent ensemble in “The N-Lovers.” (Courtesy Jay Yamada) 

The forbidden n-word is uttered freely, in a deceptively playful way—the entire play is indeed playfully deceptive — in a variety of contexts as Thompson examines the word’s trajectory through time. 

Early on we hear the forbidden word in song: Tanika Baptiste serves as a sort of intermittent emcee, addressing us, the presumed mostly white audience, directly and provocatively. (“I may be a n—— and a bitch, but I draw the line at nappy-headed,” she says at one point, before stomping offstage.)  

Tanika Baptiste is a provocative emcee of sorts in “The N- Lovers” at the Magic Theatre. (Courtesy Jay Yamada) 

Other characters sing as well (playwright Thompson is composer and lyricist), and sometimes the songs are poignant, soulful, amid the show’s overall variety/minstrel-show vibe. 

Thompson’s retelling of painful history is ultimately a dizzying jumble of story, comedy, music, choreographed movement and love scenes, cultural and political references co-opted for satire — almost, in its entirety, an assault on the brain and the senses. It requires fortitude on the part of the audience—Thompson and San José don’t make it easy on us—and it might better serve its purposes if the material were more cleanly curated, as its first, sharp scene suggests. But it’s for sure a unique theatrical experience. 

“The N- Lovers” continues through May 21 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Third Floor, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call (415) 441-8822 or visit https://magictheatre.org.