Race and identity politics in theatre in the USA

Postcard from Minneapolis and New York City

Blackout Improv; Mixed Blood Theatre, Prescient Harbingers; Aleshea Harris, What to Send Up When It Goes Down; Jeremy O. Harris, Slave Play

Since I started visiting the US regularly one of my biggest lessons has come from encountering racial politics (and identity politics generally) in a much more up-front way than back home in Australia, where even the word ‘race’ is generally avoided (and the concept evaded) in favour of the less loaded term ‘culture’. This is even more the case with ‘colour’ (and even more specifically ‘Black’); skin colour just isn’t referred to comfortably in Australia at all, either literally or as a cultural category or designator of social class.

Blackout Improv is a local Minneapolis comedy improvisation troupe of Black theatre actors, stand-up comedians, writers and musicians who mix comedy, social justice and arts access work in their performances, workshops and training. Since I’ve been here this winter I’ve seen three of their shows: a late-night spot at Pillsbury House Theatre, and two of their regular third-Monday-of-the-month shows at Mixed Blood Theatre.

Blackout (cast pictured below) is not like any other improv I’ve seen. The methodology is familiar enough: the audience volunteers topics – in the form of a word or phrase – either solicited verbally (as they were for the more abbreviated performance at Pillsbury House) or written down on scraps of paper and dropped into a hat before the show (as for the more structured evenings at Mixed Blood); these become the basis for group sketch-comedy improvisations, with individual members of the company dropping in and out or watching from the sidelines. However each sketch is preceded by a serious sit-down all-in discussion of the topic by the ensemble; and because of the identity and mission of the performers (and at least some in the audience – who were however mostly White at all three shows I attended) the content of the discussion and sketch (regardless of topic) tends to be informed by race.

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The performers are all dazzlingly skilled and in tune with each other, but what’s really exciting is the honesty with which hilarious and sometimes painful contradictions are exposed. For example, at Pillsbury House, someone yelled out ‘MeToo!’, which led to a fearless discussion (mostly by the female performers) about their feelings of rage and disempowerment at the way they felt white middle-class women had hijacked a conversation (and a phrase) that was originally started by (and been about) working-class women of colour. This led to an excruciatingly funny sketch involving a White middle-class woman trying to get her driver’s licence renewed in an increasingly awkward exchange with a Black male service-counter worker. An escalating competition ensued over which of them was more discriminated against on the basis of race or gender, while the other performers fluttered around her chanting softly ‘White fragility’ before finally breaking into an improvised refrain: ‘Shut the fuck up, Melissa!’ (or some other typically White middle-class name) – which had me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and uncomfortable, as all good comedy should.

Other memorable highlights included a hilarious take on the topic of religion, which had two performers admitting that they’d been raised by minister-parents, after which they embarked on a manic game-show-style improvised sermon-competition, complete with fake biblical quotations; an extended dive into the topic of sex education, which led to a series of fearlessly revealing anecdotes followed by an improvised high-school ‘advanced’ sex-education class; and a entire evening devoted to the theme of getting partnered (or ‘boo’d up’), which included a lot of self-mockery (also extended to some brave members of the audience) about Black dating rituals.

All in all, I found Blackout an exhilarating and highly addictive experience: funny, edgy, unafraid to strike jarring notes and expose rough edges, and genuinely empowering for everyone onstage and in the audience, Black and White.

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Later that week I was back at Mixed Blood for Prescient Harbingers, a trilogy of recent plays by three Black male playwrights from outside Minneapolis that all in one way or another touched on racism and gun violence (or in one play, gun-violence in a predominantly White workplace). The trilogy was produced by Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler with a shared design team (and some cast members) but three different directors, and all three plays were remounts: Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was originally produced (and set) in New York; Hooded: or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm was first staged in Washington DC (and set in Baltimore); and Hype Man: A Break Beat Play by Idris Goodwin was a guest production by Company One Theatre, Boston (and ‘set recently in a large American city’).

I saw the plays on three separate nights; they were also performed as a marathon on weekends; but despite their shared themes and personnel the plays and productions were vastly different experiences. I found Hype Man (which I saw first) the weakest on all fronts. A somewhat schematically written and statically staged one-act work about a rap outfit divided by racial-political tensions in the wake of a police shooting, it was well-enough acted but suffered from the fact that the actors weren’t convincing as rap artists (apart from Rachel Cognata as the beat-maker, Peep One). This wasn’t such a problem during the long and somewhat dramatically inert recording-studio scenes, but became a glaring liability in the ‘live-gig’ sequences. (IMHO it’s almost always a mistake to make theatre about another art-form, except with crossover artists who are adept at both; Amadeus is an exception because it’s primarily about a mediocre artist, Salieri.)

 

Gloria was a much more sophisticated and fully realised play in three Acts with an interval between Acts One and Two. The action spanned two years and three locations, and revolved around a mass shooting at a New Yorker-style literary and cultural magazine workplace in New York City. The genius of the writing lay in the element of dramatic surprise and ‘post-suspense’ about who had survived the entirely unexpected (and shocking) onstage shooting that ended Act One. This level of uncertainty was heightened by the theatrical device of having the same actors reappear in Acts Two and Three playing different characters from the ones they had played in Act One who had been killed (or killed themselves).

IMHO it’s almost always a mistake to make theatre about another art-form, except with crossover artists who are adept at both.

The staging was a little unimaginative and some performances suffered from a degree of caricature that possibly reflected some of the same actors’ work in the more appropriately cartoon-like Hooded (which I saw the following night). Personally I felt the subtlety and stealth of the writing in Gloria would have benefited from a more nuanced and underplayed overall acting style; this was notably achieved by William Thomas Hodgson, the sole Black actor in the show, who by doing the least made the most of his three relatively minor (and conspicuously lower-status) roles.

I found the play a deceptively layered take on micro-aggression and exploitation – with some delicious reverse-ironies perpetrated at the audience’s expense about how the survivors of the shooting each sought to appropriate and profit from the experience in a ‘post-truth’ media age. As such, it had a great deal to say about how everyone experiences and perpetrates violence and trauma (physical and emotional) in their own way – and sometimes even for their own benefit – in a kind of dis-informational ‘cycle of abuse’. It also showed how this takes place against a background of isolation and anomie, especially in a big, fast, individualistic and ruthlessly competitive city like New York.

Hooded was by far the most exciting and provocative of the three Harbinger plays and productions. Staged with considerable flair by Thomas W. Jones II and taking a more dynamic and abstract approach to the set and lighting (including the judicious use of silhouettes and projections), the writing and performance styles were also considerably more heightened than Hype Man or Gloria.

In a one-act series of jagged short scenes, the central relationship unfolded between a more socially ‘integrated’ and preppy young Black male high-school student Marquis (who has been adopted by a wealthy White family) – brilliantly played by William Thomas Hodgson in more neurotic and extraverted mode than his work in Gloria – and his more politically ‘woke’ and streetwise counterpart Tru (played in more relaxed form by Nathan Barlow). The two meet while being held in a police station following an incident in a park; Tru proceeds to ‘adopt’ Marquis and ‘re-train’ him in the art of ‘being Black’, particularly when it comes to picking up privileged White girls at his school. The relationship is paralleled in a hilarious sub-plot involving one of Marquis’s White male student ‘friends’ Hunter (a fabulous piece of clowning by Tom Reed, who played a nerdy and vindictive shooting-survivor in Gloria) who gets hold of Tru’s hand-written bible ‘Being Black for Dummies’ and attempts to transform himself in order to achieve sexual success with his White girlfriend.

The show swung wildly between over-the-top comedy, grotesque satire (especially in the protracted scene when Hunter assumes his ‘Black’ persona and attempts to seduce his girlfriend) and the occasional (and for me slightly less successful) venture into surreal mythology or realistic tragedy. Marquis’s elaborately staged dreams about Apollo and Dionysus (inspired by his precocious reading of Nietzsche) seemed like an unnecessary extension of his clearly archetypical relationship with Tru (which already resembled a Black version of Fight Club); and Hunter’s off-stage suicide seemed to come out of nowhere and felt neither convincing nor satisfying. However, the final image of a terrified Marquis being cornered by a White cop with a gun was truly the stuff of nightmares – a nightmare that young Black men in America have to live with every day.

Mostly I found Hooded an exhilarating work of ‘Black-comic’ (in both senses of the phrase) theatre probing the same vein as some of the best sketches in Blackout. One of the most disturbing moments came in the first scene, when Marquis takes Instagram selfies while in the police station, and shifts from planking poses to lying prone on the floor. When Tru asks what he’s doing, Marquis blithely replies that he’s ‘Trayvoning’ – a reference to the infamous 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin that inspired Black Lives Matter (the movement and the slogan itself). Whether or not this practice is real or fabricated, I found it a chilling indictment of the effect of social media on truth, ethics and politics, both within and beyond the Black community.

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The following week I saw two even more incisive and formally adventurous works of Black theatre in New York City. What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a new off-Broadway play by Aleshea Harris directed by Whitney White for The Movement Theatre Company at the A.R.T. Theatre. More precisely, it’s not exactly a play, but what Harris in her program note describes as ‘a ritual’ created in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other shootings of Black people – as well as the racist response to those shootings, which has largely exonerated the killers and blamed the victims.

Initially the title made me think I was going to see another work of political satire, until I learned that in America the phrase ‘send up’ refers to the act of sending up a prayer (rather than an act of mockery as the phrase generally implies in Australia). Indeed there’s a sacred quality to the ritualised action, language and staging of What to Send Up which reminds me of the role of religious discourse and practice in African-American (and indeed American) culture and politics.

In more psychological terms, the work is an act of catharsis and even therapy for the playwright and the audience that transforms theatre into a forum for testimony, rage, grief, meditation and commemoration. It creates what Harris describes as ‘a space in the theatre that is unrepentantly for and about Black people’; as such, it’s not a ritual or a space intended primarily for White people, who are not the show’s somewhat ironically designated ‘target audience’; though they are invited to enter, witness and even participate – at least until the final section, when White audience members are asked to leave the theatre and gather in the foyer for a separate debrief while they wait for their Black companions.

‘Send up’ refers to the act of sending up a prayer (rather than an act of mockery as the phrase generally implies in Australia).

Before the performance began we all gathered in the foyer to contemplate an exhibition of hundreds of photos (many presumably harvested from social media) of Black victims of racialised violence covering every available wall surface. Among them I recognised the names of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and (something of a flashback) Rodney King; but it was a shock to see their faces, and countless others, including young children, teens and elders, in family snapshots and selfies.

When we entered the theatre we were asked to form a circle and introduce ourselves by name; identify ourselves in response to a sequence of questions that mapped our relationship to racism and racialised violence; and articulate how we felt or hoped to feel by the end of the show. We listened to one of the performers read out a brief biography of one of the victims and then collectively repeated her name once for each year of her life; the sequence terminated at seven. Finally, we emitted a collective shout or scream in response to what we had heard so far.

We then dispersed to the three-sided seating banks and the performance proper began. Four female and three male performers (a fourth was unable to perform that night because of an undisclosed family tragedy) embarked on a sequence of songs, dances, chants, monologues and vignettes about enduring racism in multiple forms.

The singing (led by one of the female performers, Denise Manning) was highly emotive, and the dancing and chanting tightly choreographed and accompanied by rhythmic body slapping. There was a recurring heightened second-person poetic monologue by one of the male performers (Beau Thom – for me the most striking performer of the night) that manically-obsessively listed ‘your’ feelings of anguish, despair and rage in response to ‘it’; and a recurring scenario involving a White liberal Southern woman called ‘Miss’ (played with sarcastic bravura by another male performer, Ugo Chukwu), her obsequious Black driver (Thom again, in an excruciating caricature of a Jim Crow-era minstrel) and an increasingly furious maid called ‘Made’ (Rachel Christopher). Other memorable scenes included one involved two male friends, one of whom criticises the other for walking the way he does in White neighbourhoods and then demonstrates by mimicking him with a walk that appeared to be completely ‘neutral’; and a diatribe about a White female co-worker who claims not to ‘see colour’. The show escalated in energy and intensity, culminating in a literally scarifying revenge-monologue by ‘Made’ in which she fantasises about torturing a White oppressor by flaying them alive. By the end of the show (or in my case the point at which the White audience were asked to leave before the final stage in the ritual) several cast and many audience members were visibly struggling or in tears.

I was deeply shaken by the content and form of this work – especially its tactic of overtly and forcefully ‘seeing colour’. The atmosphere felt appropriately dangerous but at the same time ‘safe’, for the audience and the performers. I say this as a White audience-member; I have no knowledge of what occurred at the end of the ritual, but I imagine it involved some form of healing. I should add that ‘White critics’ were among those targeted at one point in the show – possibly a reference to one review I read which ironically warned readers not to go if they were afraid of being confronted (IMHO it’s never the job of a critic to anticipate how anyone else will react or to tell anyone not to see a show).

Once again, however, I noticed the targeting of White women (as opposed to White men) in the show – and more specifically White liberal women; my two White female companions both felt the same way. One suggested that it was a reaction to the much-touted fact (though the claim is somewhat questionable) that a majority of White women voted for Trump (at least in comparison with those who voted for Hillary Clinton); but I wondered how much misogyny might also play a role, in both the targeting and the election results – alongside a backlash across race, gender and class lines against liberalism generally.

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The most radical and provocative show I saw in New York was Slave Play by queer Black playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O. Hara at the New York Theatre Workshop. This time the title had me expecting a heavy night of period drama; in fact it’s a pun on the concept of domination and submission in the context of sexual ‘play’. Specifically, Harris explores the slippery (in every sense of the word) intertwining of racism and desire. As such, he penetrates (if you’ll forgive me extending the pun) more deeply than any of the works previously discussed (or indeed any play I can think of since Shakespeare’s Othello, with a brief nod to Genet) into the psychosocial mechanics of racism and sexual/gender-roles.

Harris admits in an interview that he was partially inspired as a playwright by watching multi-screen online porn as a teenager; and the first Act of Slave Play plunges us into a montage of three couple-scenarios involving various permutations of race, gender, sexuality and sexual dominance/submission between slaves and masters (or mistresses). The scenarios all appear to take place on a pre-Civil War plantation, but are (at first puzzlingly) clumsy in terms of their performance and staging; they are also interrupted by incongruous bursts of the Rihanna/Drake song Work which the characters seem to be aware of and respond to.

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Teyonah Parris and Paul Alexander Nolan in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Slave Play . Photo by Joan Marcus

As with Gloria, it’s hard to write about what follows without spoiling the show, so skip to the end of this paragraph in the unlikely event that you’re in New York and are planning to see it. For those still reading: twenty minutes into the first Act, and with things hotting up in all three scenarios, one of the participants calls out a safe-word (‘Starbucks!’), and two white-coated female therapists enter from the auditorium. It soon becomes clear that the six characters we’ve been watching onstage are in fact three contemporary mixed-race couples (two straight, one gay) participating in a five-day ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ workshop in which they dress up as pre-Civil War Southern slave-owners and slaves, and act out sexual fantasies to address the Black partners’ sexual dysfunction (they have been diagnosed with ‘anhedonia’), which is supposedly related to inter-generational trauma.

Slave Play might be the most Utopian work of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

A hilarious second Act ensues, in which the two well-meaning therapists clumsily guide the couples to unpack and share their feelings, with calamitous results for all of them (including the therapists, who are also an inter-racial gay female couple with relationship problems of their own). The White characters are exposed as loving but unwitting oppressors, and every bit as neurotic as their Black partners, who gradually come to realise how they’ve been oppressed. The mood accordingly shifts from comedy to pathos; and things becomes darker in the final Act, when one of the couples returns home, apparently on the brink of a break-up, and re-inhabit their antebellum fantasy-roles in a much more disturbing and ambiguous way; before the play pulls the rug out from under our feet once more in a devastating (and possibly liberating) final twist.

The deft, multi-layered writing is ably supported by superb performances from all eight actors that manage to be funny, touching, sexy and occasionally scary; astute direction; and a simple but spectacular set featuring a backdrop of modular mobile mirrors that (depending on positioning and lighting) reflect the audience, the characters (especially when positioned above them in the final Act) and (most hauntingly) a horizontal panel suspended above and behind the audience which depicts an avenue of trees leading to a classic Georgian plantation home. As such, it evokes our own voyeuristic complicity in the onstage action as well as the history that precedes it and envelops us too. Above all, it intensifies the focus of the play on the mechanisms of desire.

This focus makes Slave Play less about moral culpability or consciousness-raising than about the unconscious and structural determinants of racism, gender, sexuality and desire itself. Paradoxically, I found the brutal honesty of the play emotionally, artistically and politically liberating – as well as being surprisingly compassionate and even forgiving in its treatment of all the characters, however flawed: black and white, male and female, straight and gay, dominant and submissive alike. This breadth of vision is possible because of the play’s multiplicity of perspectives and inclusive cast, which in turn enables it to speak in a more inclusive and complex way to its audience.

In fact I found myself wondering if the playwright’s queer perspective in some ways offered a more progressive – as well as theatrical – take on things than works driven by ‘straight’ anti-racist, feminist or even class-based identity politics, which can often get stuck in the (necessary) emotional stage of anger or even despair. Specifically, the use of masks, costumes, props and disguises, and more generally pretence and role-playing, has historically been both a possible and necessary strategy for survival (as well as a source of pleasure) among the queer community in response to oppression on the basis of their sexuality. Perhaps this has led to an understanding of performance – and the performative aspect of identity itself – which can help us all to negotiate our political, artistic and even domestic conflicts; trans, non-binary and gender-fluid thought and practice might also provide us with even more tools for thinking and doing things differently. If so, Slave Play might be the most Utopian work of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

3 responses to “Race and identity politics in theatre in the USA

  1. Blackout Improv sounds very much like Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Often this type of thing is made with high school students where the teacher guides the students into writing and performing their own play and when the performance actually takes place, audiences are invited to get involved. Students are encouraged to explore areas of concern in their collective lives such as race, bullying, “who likes who” etc. It’s good stuff

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