Lyrical multigenerational novel by playwright/author Shange (We Troubled the Waters, 2009, etc.) and her playwright/set designer sister Bayeza.
If music be the food of love, it is the staff of life for “the colored Mayfields” and their descendants over the next century and a half. As the story opens, two of those Mayfields, Bette and her granddaughter Eudora, are departing their home, a South Carolina plantation called Sweet Tamarind, displaced by post–Civil War carpetbaggers who “had bought all the land and paid the white Mayfields a smidgeon of what it was worth and left the poor blacks high and dry.” It will not be the first indignity the black Mayfields are made to suffer, but they are a resourceful lot—and uncommonly blessed with the gift of song, masters of countless instruments and genres. That gift binds banjo-strumming Bette to seventh-generation descendant Tokyo Walker, a world-traveling singer of our own time who is not spared the task of battling injustices all her own: “Back taxes and a reputation for bad behavior had trailed her all the way to Botswana,” write the authors, but redemption of a sort finds her there as well. Shange and Bayeza account song as an instrument of resistance; for the generation of the age of ragtime, it heralds “the New Negro”; for another, it affords a means of escape to less racially fraught places (“America? You can have it,” says the expatriate Mitch after having found France a far more welcoming homeland than his native country); for all, it provides a potent means of self-expression. The authors range across centuries and continents, and to all appearances they’ve enjoyed the work of creating a world and peopling it with “lords, ladies, starlets, gigolos, gangsters, and aldermen—band leaders, bootleggers, and bag men—prophets, pigfoot hawkers, and professional partiers”—to say nothing of the blues shouters and balladeers of the Mayfield line.Think of it as Roots with a treble clef—a confident, lively account of love, art and what falls between.