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