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How We Talk About Race

How We Talk About Race

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Published by Robert Ellsworth
black theater
black theater

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Published by: Robert Ellsworth on Oct 03, 2013
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How We Talk About Race. By: Tate, Greg
10/3/2013 4:33:00 AM
 
How We Talk About Race. By: Tate, Greg, American Theatre, 87503255,May/Jun2000, Vol. 17, Issue 5
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HOW WE TALK ABOUT RACEListenSelect:American AccentAustralian AccentBritish Accent
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critic's notebook
Dutchman and White People take a stab at truth-telling
African-American science fiction writer Samuel Delany describes growing upblack in America as one prolonged racial incident. For my part, I'vediscovered it to be extremely difficult for a black American and a white oneto spend more than five minutes together without race awkwardly and ofteninappropriately forcing its way to the head of the conversation. In 1964,Amiri Baraka, nee LeRoi Jones, wrote
Dutchman
in an attempt to tanglewith (if not quite untangle) the national obsession with race and the socialunease it tends to provoke.When the play first appeared, it was considered controversial for broachingthe then-taboo subject of interracial dating. As revisited at Connecticut'sHartford Stage Company in February, the play appears far more complex--and more current--in that it confronts the cyclical and near-conspiratorialphenomenon of violence against African-American men. Ostensibly about anencounter between Clay, a young middle-class black man with vague poeticaspirations, and Lula, a sultry but acidic blonde he meets on a New Yorksubway ride, the play (in director Jonathan Wilson's taut production) deftly,prophetically and diachronically alludes to events ranging from the sexual
 
set-to in the Garden of Eden to the O.J. Simpson and Amadou Dialloincidents.The title derives from an old sailors' myth about a haunted ship doomed tosail eternally without ever being allowed to set port because of a curse laidupon its captain. Clay, a name symbolically loaded with the stuff from whichthe creator made Adam, is paired with Lula, who in this context evokesLilith--Adam's first wife, before Eve, in Hebraic texts and also, it is intimated,the first witch. The sexualized racial banter in the play is still disturbing, asis the violence which occurs when Clay finally attacks the prickly Lula--not,as one expects, for calling him all manner of "niggers" as she so inventivelydoes throughout the one-act, but for calling him out for allegedlyimpersonating a white man. Clay's longest speech, given while clenchingLula's throat, advocates retributive violence by blacks as a form of therapyand lacerates white jazz and blues fans for not realizing that their beloved"darky" music is actually a sublimated form of hate mail.The ending of the play still shocks: Not only does Lula kill Clay, she ralliesher co-conspirators, the train's other passengers--some white, some blackand even one black female--to help her toss his limp body off the train. TheHartford production was made especially rewarding by the discussion whichcommenced immediately afterwards. The general (and genuine)bewilderment that the play shot through the well-integrated audience was asapparent as the visceral shudders and aftershocks.Written just on the cusp of Baraka's conversion to black cultural nationalism,
Dutchman
frighteningly predicts it. (In The Slave, a companion pieceBaraka asks to be performed with
Dutchman
, the protagonist kills hisbiracial family before going off to join the revolution.)
Dutchman
presents acautionary Baraka weighing his options as a neurotic black intellectual on theverge of being embraced to death by mainstream white America. This fear of assimilation unto annihilation is still a major cause of African-Americananxiety in the post-Civil Rights era. The obsession in hip-hop culture withNelson George's coinage "ghetto-centricity" and with "keepin' it real" is areflection of this, as is the real paranoia found in the confession of manysuccessful middle-class black men that their greatest fear (same as it was inantebellum slavery times, if you think about it) is becoming a hapless victimof police brutality.
 
The responses to the performance I saw came mostly from white men andwomen who seemed perplexed or in denial as to the play's actual statement.One neo-chauvinist questioned how a skinny blonde like Lula could everbecome so powerful as to coerce her fellow travelers into a murder cover-up-as if the lynching of Emmet Till for looking at a white woman had neverhappened. Another viewer sought to reduce the play to a universalcommentary on the inhumanity of the New York subway system, as if themurder which provides
Dutchman
with its denouement was just athrowaway bit of stage business. A chap, who was identified as a collegeprofessor, confessed that he had been a 30-year devotee of the play on thepage, but he didn't know what it was about after seeing it in performance.Given these responses by the play's intended audience, perhaps
Dutchman
 is finally about how American liberalism lacks the language and the couragefor confronting the irrational and supremacist fears at the core of its ownracism. Baraka's writing has always been just literary enough to enchant andmesmerize the literate and to stick it to us with a hot poker in the samebreath.
Dutchman
may well be the most exemplary display of his genius atrage.The same month
Dutchman
was mortifying theatregoers in Hartford,audiences at the Philadelphia Theatre Company were being treated toplaywright J.T. Rogers's cheekily titled White People. Here the actionconsists of three interwoven monologues delivered by a successful corporatelawyer who despairs of his mailroom employees' fashion sense; a working-class mother with a sick child who despairs of her South Asian doctor'sintellect; and a white college professor who teaches freshman English and isdespairingly in awe of a street-smart black female student's wit andbrainpower. The subject is white rage in the face of tolerating andaccommodating the darker tribes, and the guilt and anguish caused by thatrage. Rogers is clearly attempting to scrape and scratch at his own tribe'sskin-deep angst. As in
Dutchman
, race-consciousness and violence areshown to never be too long apart in the American configuration, though inRogers's case the creaking of melodramatic gears accompanies hisnightmare reports from racial battlefield. Nevertheless, the play effectivelydeclares how mean a thing white privilege is and how dangerously andtraumatically defensive it can become.

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