FRINGE SHORTS: “The Jamal Lullabies” by Emily Conbere

Lightsey Darst assesses the satirical musical theater production, "The Jamal Lullabies," by Emily Conbere and the East River Commedia--showing at the Southern Theater for two remaining shows, August 8 and 10.


Every year, Fringe brings a few shows so peculiar that it’s hard to know what to call them and nearly impossible to figure out what kernel of an idea they sprang from. The Jamal Lullabies (created by Emily Conbere) is one of these. The set-up is easy to grasp: Jamal Hall, “a beloved gang member and a beautiful tired-out addict,” has died in a shooting, and the four white girls he treated to glimpses of his stereotypical black world—“the Jamal girls,” as they call themselves—have gathered to remember him. From there, though, the water gets pretty muddy. Is this sincere? you might find yourself wondering, as the girls gather, pull long faces, and put down their memorial daisies. No, it’s not, you realize as the girls start singing about sex with Jamal, but it’s also not pull-out-all-the-stops funny. Instead, The Jamal Lullabies has the feel of a slightly off Saturday Night Live skit: occasionally crack-up inducing, but mostly just conceptually weird. The evening I attended, people in the audience were going off at irregular intervals, hardly ever in synchrony. I wanted to laugh, but a certain tension held me back: despite the show’s absurd veneer, the death of Jamal still seems like a real event, a profound black hole at the show’s center.

The girls love Jamal for his beauty and his beautiful disaffection, for the boundary-breaking behavior he incited in them, but they don’t know anything about him. They exoticize him so thoroughly, in fact, that they think he invited them to one particularly louche party in order to witness his shooting—i.e., he died to teach them something. You could say The Jamal Lullabies is about white girls, because it certainly skewers their safety and their self-absorption, while at the same time offering sympathy for their venturesome hearts. Jamal is a dark cipher by which we measure the pale vapidity of their lives.

But the psychology of high school white girls has to duke it out with the inanity of musical theater as the subject of The Jamal Lullabies. The show is basically one song after another. The cast’s clear voices harmonize prettily, accompanied only by one girl’s guitar strumming, in what would be perfectly sincere faux Simon and Garfunkel melodies if it weren’t for the words. The girls grab onto any little bit of text—“I wanted to kill you all,” say—and encrust it with rhymes and vocalizing, building up to Gilbert and Sullivan-esque silliness. When the theatrical takes center stage, The Jamal Lullabies reaches its apex of bizarrerie: anything real recedes into a send-up of musicals, and the death of Jamal vanishes under a weight of satire.

Puzzling as it is, The Jamal Lullabies is a fun mind-trip, an antidote to smooth theatricality and fake feeling. It’s also a demonstration of creator Emily Conbere’s talent. Whatever she does next probably won’t be easy, but it’s sure to be interesting.

About the writer: Lightsey Darst writes on dance for Mpls/St Paul magazine and is also a poet and editor of’s What Light: This Week’s Poem publication project.

What: The Jamal Lullabies by Emily Conbere and East River Commedia
Where: Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN
When: August 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 (click here for specific performance times)
Admission: $12 (plus a $3 Fringe button)

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