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

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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 Awaynotwithstanding. 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 Vengeancein 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.


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.

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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