Monday, December 6, 2010

Plays about Lynching in 2010: Recognizing History’s Presence

This year’s New York International Fringe Festival received applications from 800 theatre groups.  Approximately 200 shows were accepted and would be staged in August 2010.  Within the wide array of offerings, one presentation proved especially compelling:  Kym Gomes’s By Hands Unknown, which consists of seven one-act plays about lynching, many of which I examine in my forthcoming book.  Having studied these plays for many years, I was eager to see them staged for the first time, but I was also nervous.  How would these scripts fit together to make a coherent show?  They were all written in the 1920s and 1930s, when dramatic conventions were different from today’s.  Would they seem melodramatic and unrealistic?  Would they even be recognized as “good” plays?  As importantly, would the content feel relevant in 2010?

All of these questions could be answered with a resounding yes because the directors were so creative and resourceful, and the actors executed so well.  My more detailed performance review should appear in the May 2011 issue of Theatre Journal (Johns Hopkins University Press), but I want to share a few thoughts here.  The power of the presentation can be understood with a focus on its opening and closing moments.

The show began with a single light shining on Safiya Fredericks as she recited “Strange Fruit” from memory.  Though a musician accompanied her on guitar, she shared it as a poem, not a song.  However, most people know the lines because Billie Holiday made them famous with her 1939 recording, so the audience could instantly feel a sense of familiarity.  Beginning this way drew audience members in; we were reassured that we knew something about the subject matter.  There is always comfort in feeling like one has a way in, like one is not on the outside of an experience. 

This powerfully rendered poem gave way to Georgia Douglass Johnson’s one-act play A Sunday Morning in the South, in which a 19-year-old who aspires to be a lawyer is falsely accused of rape.  The action begins with Tom’s grandmother and younger brother teasing him about having fallen asleep at 8 o’clock the night before.  They laugh, recalling that he was snoring so loudly that they thought he might choke.  Soon, officers barge into the house, demanding to know where Tom had been at 10 o’clock the previous night.  The play dramatizes the moment when his testimony, and that of his family members, is disregarded.  The officers insist that they already have the case “figured out.”   

Gomes’s choice to begin with a piece that emphasizes African Americans’ exclusion from basic citizenship rights, such as due process, proved especially poignant as the show approached its end.  One by one, the actors emerged from the shadows to recite a portion of Resolution 39, the 2005 measure in which the U.S. Senate apologized for having never passed anti-lynching legislation.  By the time that all 18 members of the ensemble cast had stepped forward, the entire resolution had been shared, and they covered the stage from left to right, directly facing the audience.  Black and white, different ages and backgrounds, each actor took responsibility for recognizing that this is a history that we all share, encouraging audience members to do the same.

Knowing that the black rapist myth emerged only after slavery ended and black men had finally won the right to vote, I was especially struck by the challenge issued by the actors’ stance.  By labeling black men rapists, mobs insisted that they were simply protecting white women.  The charge overshadowed the real purpose of mob violence: to ensure that blacks remained terrified—and too preoccupied with basic survival—to claim full citizenship rights.  This white supremacist strategy has remained popular and effective.  Relentlessly labeling black and brown people “criminals” has always been a way of insisting that they are not entitled to civic inclusion.  Given this history, and the many ways that it shapes the present, we must understand that serious political realities are reflected in the way that Americans feel comfortable talking about people. 

It matters that many of us speak with disgust in our voices about “immigrants” who are black and brown—when all Americans are actually immigrants.  It also matters that the word “criminal” has a hard time clinging to white offenders, even though crimes against the environment and crimes that have cheated thousands out of their life savings are widely publicized.  The nation consistently demonizes black and brown citizens, but the stakes are becoming even higher with the growth of the prison industrial complex.  As legal scholar Michelle Alexander has shown in The New Jim Crow, the privatized prison system offers incentives for creating “felons” with laws that essentially target those who are black, brown, and/or poor.  However, laws addressing crimes mostly committed by whites, especially moneyed whites, ensure that they receive mild punishment and relatively little stigma.  Meanwhile, the “felons” become an underclass that cannot vote and is otherwise ostracized and excluded. 

The reactionary, sometimes violent politics that now coalesce around labels like “immigrant,” “criminal,” and “terrorist” resemble those justified by the earlier “black rapist” myth—especially because, when actual immigrants, criminals, and terrorists are white, they are somehow not known by those labels.  Though not equivalent, the situation was similar at the last turn of the century:  hysteria regarding the mythic black rapist made the documented rape of black women by white men a non-issue in mainstream discourse and public policy.   

Because By Hands Unknown begins and ends its engagement with lynching by raising questions about basic rights, it urges us to think seriously about who comes to mind when we say “citizen” today.

More about By Hands Unknown:
A Brava Company/Chelsea Rep LAB Production
Conceived by Kym Gomes
Directed by Harvey Huddleston, Kym Gomes
Associate Directors: Carmen Balentine, Ravin Patterson
Music Director: Bruce Baumer
Costumes by Jennifer Anderson

Ensemble Cast: Carmen Balentine, Michael Bunin, Valerie Elizabeth  Donaldson, Safiya Fredericks, Kym Gomes, Matt Hammond, Phil John, Nancy Keegan, Jamil Moore, Brett Pack, Alison Parks, Ravin Patterson, Jihan Ponti, Rick Schneider, Stefania Diana Schramm, Vonetta Steward, Temesgen Tocruray, Nathan Yates

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tyler Perry’s ‘For Colored Girls’: Not the Disaster Predicted

Like so many who love Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, I was upset when I heard that Tyler Perry would direct an adaptation for the big screen.  I was more infuriated to discover that a screenplay by a black woman author had been pushed aside to accommodate his.  I went to the movie sure that I would hate it, but left surprised that so much of the original text had been preserved.  I was also (dare I say it?) impressed with the methods used for fleshing out the women’s stories in order to make the fairly long monologues of Shange’s choreopoem work well in the film’s scenes.  Perry’s For Colored Girls is far from perfection, but the criticism that his leadership sparked led him to seek extensive help from collaborators.  The result?  The film is not the disaster that so many just knew it would be. 

Having read Shange’s original and seen it staged, I wondered why it would seem appealing as a potential film.  The Broadway revival that fell prey to the most recent economic crisis made sense.  A movie?  Not so much.  In theatrical productions, the text’s focus on the women’s monologues is easily maintained; there is little need for props and changing scenery.  In film, the minimalism would have to be replaced, and men would be present in many scenes that would not have required them on stage.  Thus, I anticipated unnecessary distractions from the beauty and music of Shange’s poetic language.  Yet, the film succeeds by not trying to do the same kind of work achieved by the original text and stage productions of it. 

The movie does not keep intact the women’s individual stories.  Shange’s original represents the journeys of The Lady in Brown, The Lady in Yellow, The Lady in Purple, …Red, …Green, …Blue, and …Orange.  Though Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) and Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) do not represent women in the play, their words sometimes come directly from it.  Yet, Perry prepares viewers for the variation in that Gilda often wears black and Alice is always in white—colors that are not featured in the original.  Besides creating characters associated with colors not highlighted in Shange’s text, the film emphasizes color through props more than wardrobe.  For instance, Crystal (Kimberly Elise) rarely wears yellow, but she serves beverages in yellow mugs and her children’s stuffed animals are often yellow. 

Even those characters associated with Shange’s colors do not match the text.  Juanita (Loretta Divine) is always in green in the film, but she delivers a monologue that the play assigns to The Lady in Red.  Outside of her unreliable lover’s door, Juanita ends the relationship declaring that it has been an experiment to see “if i waz capable of debasin’ my self for the love of another.”  Similarly, Jo (Janet Jackson) is most often associated with red, but she is the one who insists, “one thing i dont need is any more apologies,” which The Lady in Blue says in the play.  Jackson’s rendition is extraordinarily constrained.  She has a very staid demeanor throughout the film, and this speech makes her emotional fatigue palpable.  Jackson’s soft-spoken but unwavering declarations wonderfully contrast the way that “the betrayed black woman” is typically represented in the nation’s popular imagination.

Interestingly, though film offers the flexibility to place characters is several settings, the scope of Shange’s vision is reigned in, not expanded.  The choreopoem begins with each of the women naming their locations: “outside of” Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Manhattan, St. Louis.  In the film, they are all in the New York metropolitan area and several live in or visit the same apartment building.  More strikingly, Shange’s diasporic vision is largely excised from the film.  The play’s incorporation of Latin music, and dance of all kinds, is all but missing from the movie.  Also, the film reduces the importance that Shange’s work places on Haiti and Toussaint L'Ouverture to a distraction for frightened children.  The story is creatively woven into the movie’s plot, but much detail is sacrificed, as is the dominant role that this story played for the female character in the original.

Perhaps the most lamentable missing element is one that could have been predicted.  Many of us feared that the original work’s black feminist orientation could not survive when placed in Perry’s hands.  I would certainly join the chorus of those who would suggest that there is little nuance in his work where black women are concerned.  In the play, one of the clearest moments of women supporting women emerges when The Ladies in Blue, Red, and Purple each take a part in pinpointing the assumptions that keep rapists safe and women vulnerable.  Together, they reject the myth that rapists are strangers, not friends.  Shange uses several women, not a lone voice, to assert that “the nature of rape has changed.”  Yet, in the film, it is largely in isolation that Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose) bears witness to rape and struggles to survive its trauma.  The movie does not lose sight of the injustice of Yasmine’s experience, but its linear narrative is not conducive to preserving the communion that Shange made possible on stage.

As someone invested in the insurgent possibilities of black performance, I nevertheless remain convinced that whenever black performance appears in the mainstream, sacrifices are made.  The popularity of movies featuring black men in over-the-top drag indicates that Americans do not tire of stereotypes and denigration. (The previews preceding For Colored Girls included another Big Momma movie from Martin Lawrence.)  Big ticket entertainment that tells black people’s stories is far from plentiful, and the movies with the best chances for commercial success come in the “plum foolishness” variety.  As the late Marlon Riggs might say, the country’s “ethnic notions” continue to guarantee this trend.   

For this and so many other reasons, Tyler Perry has secured a position that allows him to be one of the few people who could have made this film the success that it is.  (It’s a must-see, even if you go expecting to hate it.)  Furthermore, because the nation continues to devalue black actors, especially black women actors, much of the talent that Perry assembles would not otherwise enjoy major roles.  A very American state of affairs.

I left the movie in awe—once again—of the actor’s craft.  Even though Shange’s original language requires performers to deliver relatively long speeches, her words are often uttered verbatim.  As a result, the actors gave me opportunity to re-consider lines that already meant so much.  As mentioned, Janet Jackson’s rendition of the “i got sorry greetin me at my front door” speech is refreshingly powerful.  Likewise, Loretta Divine’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” takes full advantage of the life created for her in the film as a woman’s group instructor in a community center.  Her delivery beautifully melds the humor and solemnity of that monologue.   

Similarly, Kimberly Elise’s “I found god in myself & I loved her” maximizes the fact that the film represents more of her journey than we see in the play.  Because the audience has witnessed her interactions with her husband as he struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, as well as her painful journey without him and her children, her shrieking delivery of “fiercely” at film’s end works.  (I have to add that the back-story that the film creates for Crystal's husband Beau makes untenable assertions that black men are being bashed.  As much as I agree with the concern that the movie may fuel “down-low hysteria,” the claim that it denies the existence of good black men demonstrates the lasting relevance of Ann duCille’s warning against “phallocentric” reading practices, which are preoccupied with how black men are figured and show little regard for how accurately black women’s lives are represented.)

Ultimately, having Perry at the helm did not create the disaster expected because he clearly consulted many people in this process.  And the film will surely help create interest in supporting the Broadway revival that so nearly came to fruition before.  Even better, it will get more of us to turn back to the original text.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that you love what Ntozake Shange accomplished in the mid-1970s even more than you remembered.  If I have Tyler Perry and the empire that he has built with Madea (a character that I could do without) to thank for that, I’ll have to accept it as yet another American contradiction that makes being black and a woman “a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

RACE on Broadway: “Black Bitches” and Convenient Amnesia

David Mamet’s latest Broadway success, Race, has been receiving praise since its star-studded debut in December 2009. David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and James Spader helped draw crowds, but reviews remained enthusiastic after they were replaced in mid-June. Even before the show’s Broadway run concluded, the Philadelphia Theatre Company announced that its upcoming season will feature Race. So, the play’s Broadway success has paved the way for profits on the road. Yet, when I traveled to New York sure that I would encounter intellectually challenging theatre, I was disappointed. Mamet’s work is characterized by a lack of complexity to be expected (perhaps) in college freshmen when they first arrive, not a respected artist.

The show’s most notable features? Its frequent use of the term “black bitch” and the convenient amnesia that produces its take-away message: whites, especially white men, are forced to tip-toe through life because blacks cry “discrimination” every chance they get.

In short, the play operates as if blacks wield unlimited social and legal power. According to Race, African Americans regularly make accusations--even false ones--and they are sure to triumph because whites (including those on juries) are afraid to appear racist. This flies in the face of the reality of U.S. discrimination suits. Further, it ignores the fact that non-whites are slow to label racist behavior because we know that our most painful experiences can be dismissed with “playing the race card, eh?”
The play centers on law partners (Jack, white and Henry, black) who debate whether they should defend a rich, white man (Charles Strickland) who has been accused of raping a black woman. The firm recently hired Susan, a young black female attorney whose rooky mistakes force them to take the case. Ultimately, though, she seems to have been a “traitor” all along, and Henry concludes that Jack compromised the firm by giving an “ungrateful” affirmative action baby a chance. In short, black women can only mean trouble. The uneducated ones falsely accuse you of rape, and the educated ones try to destroy your business with claims of discrimination or worse.

Naturally, then, “black bitch” is repeated throughout the production, and though the characters are often simply quoting others, this show confirmed that John McWhorter’s plea that we “make a deal on the N-word” underestimates the critical thinking that blacks routinely employ when we encounter racial epithets. (“Black nigger bitch” quotations emerge a couple times, too.) The play’s generous use of “black bitch” is tied to its overall logic, which depends on the idea that black women are temptresses that can ensnare men who are basically moral. The woman who has been raped never appears on stage, but she is constantly discussed. She is a prostitute whose rape charge is deemed irrelevant, if not ridiculous.

Mamet is known for crass language, so the epithet is not surprising, but its prominence calls attention to the only force that propels the action: the relentless reversal of historical facts. The notion that it is impossible to rape black women, because they are so naturally promiscuous, helped make slavery profitable. White men impregnated black women but their doing so not only made them rich and left their reputations intact, but it also somehow confirmed negative assumptions about blacks. These assumptions are not relics of the past. Indeed, the play relies on the audience’s awareness of the black whore stereotype but then denies its power. After all, audiences are expected to believe that whenever black women cry foul, white men are vulnerable.

Accepting Mamet’s portrait of American society requires ignoring power dynamics and the history that put them so firmly in place. Mamet has Susan reveal that Strickland has been flirting with her, and when asked why she thinks he would do that while being investigated for raping a black woman, she answers without hesitation, “He wants punishment.” In order for her to believe that, she must assume that white men accused by black women are sure to be prosecuted. Our nation’s past and present scream that this is not the case. More likely, Strickland is bold because he knows he won’t be punished.

In Mamet’s world, power dynamics favor blacks. Apparently, the exception makes the rule: Obama’s election means anti-black racism does not exist; there is only anti-white sentiment. Likewise, as suggested by Mamet’s earlier play, Oleanna, women who charge sexual harassment are not looking for protection under the law; they just want to manipulate men and the system. Oleanna originally appeared in 1992, on the heels of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Like Thomas, Mamet conjures up an altered history in which a black woman makes false accusations and the nation launches into action, punishing whomever she names. Must be science fiction; this world has never existed.