Defiance And The Boogie-Woogie

The State of Black Theater in New York

"I'm tired of pleasing white folks!" declares Billie, the heroine of Djanet Sears's Harlem Duet, in one of the play's dream sequences. She's imagining an escape from slavery in the 1800s, but her complaint could be the quintessence of modern black rhetoric. In pre-Civil War times it was very clear to Negroes what pleased white folks and what did not. In the post-Civil Rights Movement era, however, things are different. Quasi-minstrel merrymaking still does the trick, but blacks can also please some of our Caucasian brothers by declaring that we're fed up with pleasing them. Think of how popular Public Enemy, Biggie, and Lauryn Hill are with liberal Euro-Americans, just to name a few. Black defiance sells because it's cathartic for African Americans and self-critical whites alike. The latter are also constantly aware that black defiance is safe to promote because it shields them from accusations of racism. Which isn't to say the racism's not there. Between the belligerence and the boogie-woogie, it's rare to see a full range of black humanness represented.

However icky, overdetermined liberalism still beats Jim Crow. But it also creates a conundrum for black artists who may wonder if by amplifying their militant tones they may be paradoxically selling out after all. This is especially true in the theater, where resources and opportunities for production are scarce. Here, the synergy between black attitude and Caucasian shame takes strange forms. Earlier this year, the subscription brochure for the distinguished venue New York Theatre Workshop sheepishly declared on its final page, "Our season will also include a new work featuring the urgent and contemporary voice of an artist of color." You can't help thinking that if they'd had their diversity crisis at the beginning of the programming process, they might have eliminated their perceived need for an embarrassing disclaimer. And why print that announcement anyway, except as a confession? You fear that "urgent" means an angry, slapdash production is on the way, a result of the producers' need to punish themselves for the lapse in race consciousness.

Even in an atmosphere of guilt, though, the old-fashioned method of pleasing white folks has not died. But now it's customarily served with a dollop of sanctimony. The musical revue hit amazing heights of shuckin' and jivin' this year, with George C. Wolfe's Harlem Song. So wide were the grins, so vigorous the booty-shaking, and so low the common denominator that you suspected the man who wrote The Colored Museum of giving a master class in irony. If only he didn't expect us to draw parallels between the uptown cartoons onstage and the earnest interviews with long-term Harlemites floating above them on video. Harlem Song's serious side was perhaps concocted to please black folks who might have bristled at the hootenanny made for the mainstream.

Shades of meaning: Howard W. Overshown in Yellowman
photo: Joan Marcus
Shades of meaning: Howard W. Overshown in Yellowman

A secular revival: Regina Taylor's Crowns
photo: Joan Marcus

The same appeasing sobriety shows up in Crowns, a show based on a coffee-table book about the extravagant hats black women wear to church. It's hard to imagine frothier subject matter than lime-green accessories lined with tulle. A series of scenes about hats ought to be light and funny—Caryl Churchill's Far Away notwithstanding. Sometimes good humor shines through Crowns, particularly in the hammy performance of Lillias White, but the show takes its cues from Sunday services. Adapter-director Regina Taylor has arranged the songs in sections with titles like "Procession" and "Funeral." The thin story line, about a girl traveling to the South for her brother's funeral, is muffled by all the "hattitude" the sisters sling around. And though Crowns creates a church atmosphere onstage, it's a secular revival, performed for a predominantly white audience. While the gospel music exhorts you to clap your hands and join in, it's rare that anyone gets happy for Jesus in a theater, let alone a space designed by Rem Koolhaas. Perhaps what pleases white folks most about a show like Crowns is the seemingly authentic representation of a lesser-known corner of black culture. In New York, facility with black culture is a major measure of hipness, especially access to the ever changing lexicon of African American slang. Since what's new to whites can be nostalgia to blacks, everyone's pleased.

With a mainly black demographic, you'd think the New Federal Theatre is free to do whatever show it wants. There's nothing preventing them from staging, say, Rashomon, if Shaw's too Anglo. Glance at their production history and you'll discover that they did the controversial Yiddish drama The God of Vengeance in 1978, long before the play became trendy. But nothing so risky or cross-cultural has shown up on their roster for quite some time. This year they mounted veteran performer Ossie Davis's A Last Dance for Sybil, a decently written if preachy political comedy starring his wife, Ruby Dee. Despite a slipshod opening night, some folks gave it a standing ovation. These can't be the same Negroes who give performers hell during Showtime at the Apollo. White folks should be so easy to please. But maybe it's unfair to hold the New Federal to a higher standard, just because they squander the opportunity to do more challenging work. Plenty of white folks blow that chance too. Perhaps equality means equal access to mediocrity.

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