Defiance And The Boogie-Woogie

The State of Black Theater in New York


As tired of entertaining Euro-Americans as Harlem Duet's Billie may be, there's hardly a way around having to do so in commercial theater. One would like to think, though, that contrary to marketing strategies, there's no such thing as an ideal consumer. What pleases all folks is good work—compelling stories, great performances, perspectives that challenge our assumptions, and/or themes that remind us of our common humanity. Why, then, is it so rare these days to see groups of African American actors perform a play that has as much to do with the human condition as the black human condition? That doesn't necessarily mean doing a non-black play, it could mean a play in which the actors are black but the issues aren't exclusively so. Is it just that people of color remain wary of European-based dramatic traditions? Even Djanet Sears approaches the canon only to shoot spitballs at it. Harlem Duet, though murkily set in the present, chronicles the breakup of Othello's hypothetical first marriage to a black woman. The play discredits the Moorish warrior by showing how easily white folks manipulate him, which the original already does pretty well. Perhaps African Americans also feel the need to "tell it like it is" as a strategy to ensure that our plays are well produced, timely, and most importantly, that people get to see them.

Some African American playwrights have begun to question whether the demand to "deal with race issues" because they are black is itself a form of oppression. Only a few dramatists play with the idea that just being black onstage is politics enough. Suzan-Lori Parks, building on Adrienne Kennedy, tends to warp this idea in fascinating, imaginative ways. The Lincoln assassination re-enactor who shows up in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog is an endlessly resonating image. While he evokes any number of responses, some of them political, in one sense he's just a brother going to work. Last year Carl Hancock Rux's Talk, a parody of a panel discussion, tackled racial paradoxes with refreshing zeal, following its multiracial academic characters on a wild-goose chase as they try to pin down the identity of an enigmatic black writer. More recently, Charlayne Woodard's autobiographical In Real Life put a humorous spin on her lack of street cred. In the show, she botches her first New York audition, For Colored Girls, and returns home yelping, "I've been a colored girl all my life, and I can't even play one!" Later, though she finds the antics of Ain't Misbehavin' beneath her, she takes the job and has to grapple with its exploitative aspects, her exhaustion, and her parents' disapproval, despite the fat paycheck. These aren't your same old tales of woe.

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

Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman played Manhattan Theater Club concurrently with Woodard, without the theater calling attention to the simultaneity of these urgent and contemporary voices of color. Pandering to no particular demographic, Yellowman allowed viewers a glimpse of a color-struck corner of South Carolina's Sea Islands. The narrative, about two lovers of differing shades, exposes an intra-black issue to a non-black audience, a taboo that regularly offends old-school types. Others might have worried that a story so grounded in a specific place and identity, certainly more so than the generic church space of Crowns, might alienate people unfamiliar with its context.

But MTC's viewers seemed to have no such problem with Yellowman, a play nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Though Orlandersmith's writing can be repetitious and vague in the name of poetry—"there was something about that bigness"—its ambitions and overall effect are terrific. In addition, the play's structure is remarkably sturdy, like a curtain rod from which the words may sometimes billow. Orlandersmith makes it clear that the characters' main troubles have as much to do with dysfunctional-family rage as identity.

The dilemma the play presents is not about race, but color, and how it affects status. This theme frustrates the notion that race isolates absolutely, trapping blacks in a self-contained subculture, and reminds us that everyone's struggle for success in the United States is mediated by the values of the ruling class. Orlandersmith, a heavyset woman, takes aim at beauty standards without scolding skinny folks. Everyone has issues about passing—Jews, Latinos, gays, you name it. These days, if Eminem and Michael Moore are any indication, even white folks have issues with whiteness. In Yellowman, Orlandersmith finds those flash points of connection and uses them to the play's advantage as it pulls us toward its violent, life-shattering conclusion. This play and others like it bring us closer to that day when black theater artists might say, as Langston Hughes once did, "If white people are pleased, we are glad. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either."

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