The question posed by the artists collected in the series of short plays entitled “The Fire This Time” currently playing at the Red Room asks “is there post-black black theater? If so, what are the stories?” The answer is a diverse collection of seven short pieces that cover race, nationality, gender, and fantasy.
In The Beyonce Effect three women – one African-American, one Indian, one African – stand shoulder to shoulder, each of them holding a pot of skin lightening cream and telling stories about what lighter skin means to them. In By The Banks of the Nile a common law couple seek legitimacy by being married inside the Catholic Church, but to do so the husband must steal mosquito nets intended to prevent malaria in order to make his wife a wedding dress. When he is discovered the villagers seek revenge.
In The Anointed and Reverb children of powerful and complex parents try to come to grips with their legacy. In A Goddess Once and Citizen Jane the inner goddess of ordinary women are made manifest, and once manifested, put off as a burden. In Poetics of the Creative Process a diabolical teacher seduces a corruptible female student and teaches her about her own dark and deep desires.
Poetics of the Creative Process is particularly interesting because neither of the characters are black, nor are they in what you might call a “black” situation (often euphemistically labeled “urban”). The scene starts with a young white woman facing away from an older man who is reaching out for her menacingly. She is presumably a college student and he is a professor. She turns around, catching him in the act, and he denies any sinister intention. The rest of the piece is a display of the teacher (and the playwright’s) eloquence and technical mastery of argument as he convinces the woman that “she was asking for it.” The scene ends with the teacher embracing the student, who appears resigned to his icky paternal embrace.
One audience member sitting in the row in front of me pointed out the striking similarity of the piece to David Mamet’s Oleanna. Ms. Girod’s play does at first glance seem to be an imitation of Mamet’s characters and plot, but on closer examination we see that her play is an extension and critique of Mamet, one that draws on many of the same tropes of identity active in the experience of people of color.
In Oleanna Mamet offers a conservative critique of “liberal” values in higher education. The professor, John, naively believes in facts and no-brainers, whereas Carol, the student, has an instinct for interpretation, what we today call spin. Carol isn’t smart, but she is cunning, and when John in true liberal style tries to assure her that there are no problems, only solutions (I hear the Beatles singing “we can work it out…”), she uses his emotional intimacy as proof of sexual harassment.
I wouldn’t call this a misogynistic play, but Mamet is no friend to women – he is very much a hard-boiled man’s man. Carol is playing identity politics with John, an asymmetrical war suited to the uneven distribution of power between professor and student. He has all the power to grades and confer success, but he feels uncomfortable with his power. She knows great power confers great responsibility, and if she can catch John shirking his responsibility, she will have reversed the polarity of power. On one hand, Oleanna is Stuff White People Like: white, upper-middle class liberals are too stupid to fight for and enjoy their priviledges. On the other hand, it is a sly insult to women and other “subalterns” who can only win the war by resorting to sneaky, cowardly chicanery.
In The Poetics of the Creative Process Ms. Girod has endowed her professor with a healthy fear of the student’s power to destroy his life with a sex scandal. (I wish more celebrities and politicians had his cunning.) And the student, though she reflexively fears him as a powerful man, is naïve about her own ambiguous sexual attraction to the danger and power he represents. The professor convinces her with his smooth talk – the talk of a dominant discourse – that she enjoys being the subaltern and the deviant, indirect power that identity gives her.
Though not obvious at first, Ms. Girod’s modification of Mamet is breathtaking. In Oleanna Carol’s ressentiment and John’s liberality is a threat to desirable social hierarchy. In The Poetics of the Creative Process the student’s ressentiment is eroticized and the power of the dominant culture becomes a fetish object for the subaltern. If we extend the student’s situation to race identity the question “is there post-black black theater” the answer must be no. The erotic, transcendent power of difference, otherness, is far more seductive (and better theater) than the poetics of liberal hegemony, that is, “whiteness,” the blank and cipher of global race relations. As Duke Senior says in the forest of Arden, “sweet are the uses of adversity.” Instead of post-black theater there is rather an evolution of blackness and black theater, from two dimensional caricature to an infinite proliferation of blacknesses.
And so, for example, in The Anointed playwright Germono Toussaint plays a caricature of black spirituality off of a caricature of black hypermasculinity and homophobia to touch a vein of intense and authentic feeling. In this piece the son of a famous preacher listens as his father (played superbly by Travis Allen) admits to being homosexual. The preacher is anointed in the church as the descendants of Aaron were anointed to serve as priests. But the reverend is also anointed by the Spirit as it descends like fire or flows like a clear mountain stream to purify the soul of a sinner. The son, RJ, asks his father, Pastor Raymond, how he could have sex with a man and the next day stand in the pulpit and preach, and the reverend says, “I asked myself if a vessel so full of sin and evil could also be filled with God. And the answer was yes.”
The question of identity – won’t you be ashamed when folks find out you aren’t what you say you are? – is resolved by the power of the Spirit to set us face to face with divine Love. Paul says we are one in Christ, but we are unique in the eyes of God. And so if the Spirit descends on Pastor Raymond even as a homosexual, it must mean his difference has been sanctified. Or as Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.”
These works represent an exciting sample of the cultural work on race and identity in the twenty-first century. Hopefully The Fire This Time will not be the last time.
The Fire This Time
at The Red Room
85 E 4th Street