Home Art & Culture On stage, paradise for black characters often comes at a price

On stage, paradise for black characters often comes at a price

by YAR

In “Soft,” Donja R. Love’s poignant new play at the MCC Theater, a teenager wonders where black children go when they die. In the end, the audience gets the answer: a flower-covered haven where black children can truly be themselves.

The play takes place primarily within a classroom at a boarding school for troubled children; Mr. Isaiah, a young English teacher who has his own history with the law, tries to communicate with the six black and brown students in his classroom so they don’t get lost in the system, a possibility his boss sees as something inevitable.

Love’s play is one of several recent Off Broadway productions in which liberation comes to an end in stories of the oppression of Black people in contemporary society. The works share a familiar setting that serves as a kind of urban parable about the ways in which the education system and other institutions can sabotage and trap people of color.

In trying to get their characters through that adversity, playwrights often face the same narrative hurdle: How can these stories end? What does liberation look like in a world where the odds are stacked against these black characters, and at a time when, after Black Lives Matter and after George Floyd, artists are being held accountable for portraying the blackness of responsible way?

There seem to be three variations on the liberation ending: transcendence through death to a heaven or paradise; escape from an institution; or a self-conscious metanarrative pivot. However, each can have its pitfalls. The first may seem like an idealization of death and yet another example of black tragedy turned into a beautiful spectacle. The other two, an escape or a narrative twist, can be seen as ways in which the work circumnavigates the grim realities of how Black people are treated in our society.

But what about the kind of liberation that best fits the story and at the same time reflects our reality?

Throughout “Soft,” flowers are a prominent motif: one student sketches them in his notebook and writing assignments; the petals fall from the ceiling like a soft rain on the heads of the spectators; and set the stage for the entire show.

At the end, in a gesture reminiscent of the closing moments of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” and Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (which, along with “Soft,” was directed by Whitney White), Black and highlights audience members in brown; they are asked to rise to receive a bouquet of flowers from a dead black child who now lives in this Eden. The sentiment is lovely: a reminder for black audience members to celebrate their own sweetness and vulnerability.

When I attended the show (scheduled to run at MCC through July 10), several people left in tears. I was moved but sad too. Despite the beauty of the show, it was ultimately another story that ended with black deaths. Perhaps part of beauty is loss; the flowers suggest an ephemeral grace.

Is there any version of black paradise that doesn’t come with an asterisk: some great calamity, mishap, or even death?

A similar question came to mind last year while watching Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Broadway production of “Pass Over.” This “Waiting for Godot”-inspired skit about race and police brutality ends with a black man, suddenly endowed with godlike power, wandering into a lush garden paradise, but only after he acquits a white man. of his sins and allows him to venture there. first.

Nwandu has spoken about the edits he made at the end of the play, because there is no easy conclusion to a story about a persistent reality in America. Unfortunately, the play’s new ending seemed to inadvertently suggest that black liberation, if it happens at all, can only happen after absolution of white oppressors; even when a black character has finally found agency, he still comes second to paradise.

In Mansa Ra’s “…What the End Will Be,” a Roundabout Theater Company production on stage through July 10 at the Laura Pels Theater, deliverance is a happy retirement for lovers. The play takes us inside a home with three generations of gay black men: the eldest, Bartholomew, a widower who lived with his male partner after his wife’s death, is now ill and shares a home with his son Maxwell, a tense and self-critical. hated careerist with a violent streak, and Maxwell’s closeted teenage son, Tony, a jock with a flamboyant boyfriend. With virtually no plot or character development, “…What the End Will Be” stumbles toward a moment of liberation, but, once again, the cost is a black man’s life.

Bartholomew battles through his painful final days with bone cancer, all the while hallucinating an image of his deceased partner, who places sunflowers all over the set. The play martyrs its gay black elder and offers him release from death, as if “burying the gays” weren’t already a prominent and problematic trope in today’s entertainment and culture.

And to make matters worse, Bartholomew’s death becomes a perfect lesson for his son and grandson, helping them relate to each other and come to terms with some version of their weirdness again. The dying black man becomes a symbol of family ties, homosexual love, and self-acceptance: his death guarantees the liberation of the other characters.

In any case, death is only a kind of escape. In Dave Harris’s “Exception to the Rule,” a “Breakfast Club” classroom of black students in detention seeks a literal escape, thanks to the addition of an awkward metaphor about the failings of the educational system and the school. . pipeline to prison

The students, all black and stuck on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, argue, gossip, and wonder where their conspicuously absent detention teacher is; after all, they can’t leave without his permission. The student who is most out of place in this allegory of incarceration is Erika, who is singled out for overachieving, being judged and teased for her “good girl” behavior until she finally launches into a condescending tirade criticizing her. their peers for not working hard enough, not changing code, not following the rules to get out of the broken system they’re trapped in.

Ultimately, Erika is the only one to escape detention, and the others are presumably stuck in this limbo. But takeaway is not clear. Should we commend Erika for her fight against blackness, her privilege, her Uncle Tom maneuvering? If not, then her escape feels strangely celebrated in the play (at the Roundabout’s Black Box Theater through June 26). Or, this is the most cynical ending one could imagine.

James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham,” which runs at the Public Theater through July 17, adapts and then breaks with the “Hamlet” story. Although Shakespeare’s original ends with nearly everyone in a body bag, Ijames’s contemporary version challenges the notion that a story about black characters, particularly black gay characters, must necessarily end in tragedy.

The show’s avatars for Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes are all gay despite the homophobia, gender stereotypes, and toxic masculinity that run in their families. But these characters decide that they will not kill each other; they will not die today.

Their liberation, a kind of gleeful disco-drag party favor, is two-fold: a challenge to expectations of tragedy within the play and a hopeful take on intolerance of gender expression, vulnerability, and sexuality outside of it. By knowingly freeing himself from the pitfalls of the tragic play and the social narrative of the Black Death, Ijames grants his characters the ability to free themselves from the crushing institutions of hate that thrive around them.

On the one hand, you could come to the end of “Fat Ham” and see it as an easy way out, a way for the playwright to write the tragedy without just writing another noir tragedy. One could say that the final release of the work is just a kind of deus ex machina, a writer showing his hand to save his rear.

And yet, in the stylized and self-conscious world of “Fat Ham,” the characters have the agency to create change. They can see the world around them and the ways they are suffocated, and choose to invoke their paradise. They find their own release. More than victims, they are their own saviors.

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