Two Columbia literature professors rape a nine-year-old girl. One black man lynches another. A white man enslaves his ghetto girlfriend. A grandmother bestows a Klan hood on her granddaughter. Strom Thurmond diddles a teenage black maid. A mixed-race girl guns down her black father with a jovial valediction: “I hope you burn in nigger hell.”
Clearly, the theater of playwright Thomas Bradshaw doesn’t tend toward the genteel. From his first New York play—2005’s Prophet, which The New York Times described as a “lacerating satire”—to subsequent works like Cleansed, Purity, and Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist, Bradshaw has fashioned a particular Off-Off-Broadway niche for himself. He writes of racial violence and brutal sexuality in painfully (and purposefully) banal language. He rejects any suggestion that he desires to shock his audience, but admits that his plays force people “to confront something or look at something they may not be very interested in looking at.” He styles himself not as a provocateur—and certainly not as an advocate of psychological realism, which he detests—but as a “hyper-realist”: “Reality without the boring parts,” he explains.
On September 6, P.S.122—which also hosted Prophet and Purity—will debut Bradshaw’s latest work, Southern Promises, directed by Jose Zayas. Unlike the earlier plays, which sprang from Bradshaw’s distressing imagination, this new play derives inspiration from historical fact: the story of the slave Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 arranged to have himself packaged and shipped to abolitionists in the North. Of course, this being a Bradshaw play, a graphic infanticide and numerous scenes of rape muddy the escape narrative.
While Bradshaw’s characters illustrate various degrees of inhumanity, the playwright himself cuts a genial, if rather excitable, figure, topped off by the colorful fedora he often sports. On a walk through the West Village—on break from a Southern Promises rehearsal and enlivened by a double espresso—Bradshaw startles passersby with his voluble ripostes to questions about the form and content of his plays.
He began his career as a provocateur even before high-school graduation: In a theater class, he’d written a play “about this teacher and his wife, who agree that he can have sex with his students as long as he doesn’t have sex with his daughter . . . . I handed it in. I really thought this was an OK thing to do.” The school banned his play and prevented him from auditioning for Bye Bye Birdie. Bradshaw recalls: “I got all these lectures—’You can’t do this,’ ‘You can’t write like this,’ ‘No one wants to see things like this.’ “
How wrong those administrators were. Ten years later, Bradshaw’s work attracts audiences and garners critical praise—but it also incites outrage and objections from both audience and cast members. That pleases the playwright: He says he finds most theater dull and is anxious to ensure that his plays aren’t. “The biggest insult you could say to me,” Bradshaw maintains, “is: ‘Wow, I thought that was really boring.’ “
Yet the plays—uneasy mixes of drama and satire—can suffer a sameness of tone, amplified by that deliberately flat language. Bradshaw juxtaposes extreme actions with wholly pedestrian speech, a choice he defends by claiming that it’s “realistic”: “I think when people are saying, ‘Let’s go rape a nine-year-old girl,’ they’re not in turmoil about it. That’s how evil functions.”
Bradshaw illustrates this in Southern Promises with a scene of two white men eyeing a half-black newborn. “My fair sister has compromised her chastity,” moans one. “What are we going to do?” The prompt reply: “Kill the child.” Within a page, the two have strangled it, prayed over it, and gone in search of a shovel. That brisk child murder might upset audiences, but Bradshaw isn’t bothered. “I don’t want people to walk out of my plays,” he says, “but that’s a valid response. Walk out—just don’t fall asleep.”