Living IncogNegro speaks with universality

Posted 2/7/24

By Jason Victor Serinus


Great art is far more than what first meets the eye or ear. The reason that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “King Lear” stand at the …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Living IncogNegro speaks with universality


By Jason Victor Serinus


Great art is far more than what first meets the eye or ear. The reason that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “King Lear” stand at the apex of tragic theatre is not simply because of the depth of their characters or their specific plights; rather it is because their stories transcend specificity of character and moment as they speak to the universality of the human experience.

It is perhaps too soon to call Gin Hammond’s “Living IncogNegro” a great work of theatre. Directed by Denise Winter, who worked with her longtime colleague Hammond to develop the text and create a theatrical tour de force specifically for Key City Public Theatre, it still shows signs of a work in progress. But the impact of its unquestionably brilliant, emotionally complex mix of self-confessional dialogue and unimpeachable truths on the hearts and minds of audience members is such that it cries out with urgency to be seen, heard, and absorbed.

KCPT provides an excellent description of Living IncogNegro when it asks, in a full-page ad in The Leader, “When your cultural identity is one thing, but your physical identity is another, how do you navigate self-expression?” In this case, the person referred to is Hammond, a light-skinned woman whose ancestry simultaneously dates back to Africa and the Mayflower pilgrims, and whose language and way of presenting herself reflect her background as a Harvard University and Moscow Art Theatre graduate, dialect coach, voiceover specialist, author, and recipient of numerous prestigious grants, along with a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress.

Hammond is forever learning to navigate her position as someone born into a family where many others, including her brother, have skin significantly darker than hers. The pigment that sets one human being or group of beings apart from another may only be skin deep, but color differences and racial ambiguity frequently contribute to any number of simultaneously amusing (at least as related by Hammond), outrageous, and infuriating situations that bring into question all notions of “normalcy” and “correctness.” In tale after tale, Hammond lays her soul bare, delivering with a level of clarity, immediacy, poise, and near-ideal timing that transforms elements of TED Talks and Quaker meeting confessionals into an intimate evening of theatrical genius.

There are a few elements of the work that still need polishing and fleshing out. The audience participation segment, which gives volunteers an opportunity to show off their ability to pronounce Spanish and Portuguese, ultimately impedes momentum. And the late addition of Michelle Cesmat as an onstage portrait artist is under-developed, leaving her on stage with little to contribute beyond ally-ship and her excellent stage design, which speaks for itself. But these early-stage kinks pale before a work that, on opening night, left this audience member breathless with its endless flow of heart-searing revelations.

“You really have to put your heart out there and feel love for the people in audience,” Hammond said during a short, well-attended post-performance discussion. That she does, without question, during her very first moment onstage. When she declares, with a divine mixture of profundity and meditative detachment, “I understand the need for labels when one is young – now my labels have served their purpose,” we are there with her. When she proclaims her joy, we feel it. And when she moves beyond the baggage of racial differences to embrace her humanness, we too move closer to that cathartic center within us where truth, joy, and love transcend the illusions of separateness and division.

“Living IncogNegro” runs at Key City Public Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., through February 11. For showtimes and more, visit