In Relevance, a play by JC Lee, black feminist author Msemaji Ukweli, who wrote a book about her sexual assault, explains why she changed her name from Tiffany Hall, and omitted from her biography any mention of her education at an expensive boarding school: Opportunity for African Americans, the character says to a white literary agent, “does not happen without indulging the white predisposition for black pain. It’s the toll you demand for our success, because it confirms both your superiority and our worth should we overcome it.”
Black pain, as it happens, is the subject of a surprising number of recent plays in New York. Sometimes the pain is expressed only in passing, in a scene or an anecdote. But in other current works on stage, it is a central theme, most often chronicling violence against African Americans—seldom in easy or expected ways.
To Harry Lennix, the expression of such pain in the past too often has taken the form of what he calls “suffering porn.” As he told me in an interview, “frequently I find the stories about black people’s servitude and pain are a little indulgent, or masochistic, and exploitative.” Lennix, a well-known actor, is making his New York directorial debut in a play by LeKethia Dalcoe entitled A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, which is running at the Billie Holiday Theatre through 4 March 2018. It is inspired by a true story that occurred in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918, when at least a dozen African Americans were lynched within a few days of one another, and focuses on one of the victims, Mary Turner, who was twenty years old and eight months pregnant. She was lynched for speaking out against the lynching of her husband the day before.
The playwright and director have chosen to “poeticize” this horrifying story. Much of the action of the three-character play takes place in a Purgatory, where the trees are made out of ropes, and dangling from each rope is a rolled up paper. The characters, all of them black, pluck the papers, and read from actual accounts of the incident. The white mob is represented only as disembodied voices, part of the sound design. The murder of Mary and her fetus are dramatized symbolically, using ribbons, in a manner that Lennix says was inspired by the way the director Julie Taymor treated the violence in the film Titus (Lennix was in the cast).
As horrendous as the events being dramatized, it is easy to see the serious purpose of this production, presented at a theatre in Bedford-Stuyvesant whose mission is to tell stories that illuminate the lives of people of African descent. During the 100th anniversary of this historical event, its representation on stage offers a useful lesson especially in light of current events.
In a startling contrast, Is God Is, about a revenge killing spree, is inspired not by any specific true stories but, according to playwright Aleshea Harris, such influences as “the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop, and Afropunk”—also comic books, Quentin Tarantino films, and Martin McDonagh plays. In the play, which is running at Soho Rep through 31 March 2018, the pop revenge genre has been transposed to an African American context: All eight members of the cast are black, the characters are from the “Dirty South,” and speak in African American vernacular. Both the victims and the perpetrators are black. Twin sisters Racine and Anaia hear from their mother for the first time in eighteen years, urging them to find and kill their father—as revenge for the fire he set that scarred all three of them. As reluctant as they initially are to accept this mission, the sisters, armed with a rock in an athletic sock, wind up killing not just their father, but every member of his new family, including two sixteen-year-old twin boys.
Unlike A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, the “point” of Is God Is is not self-evident. But there are clues the play is not intended simply as an adrenaline rush. The playwright offers some sly commentary on how we define morality. The sisters start saying “we are on a mission from God,” but they are referring to their mother that way; she made us, so she kinda like God,” Anaia says. Racine kills a woman who calls their mother “ghetto trashy,” explaining: “errbody know talkin shit about God will get you kilt.” It’s instructive that their mother let them think she had died in the fire, which occurred when they were three years old, and so they were raised by abusive foster parents. The sisters recall their “second foster daddy”:
Racine: I never cried one time when he was hittin me. Thas why he wouldn’t stop…He the first person I killt.
Anaia: You ain’t killed him. He had a heart attack.
Racine: He had it ‘cause he kept whuppin me.
Hidden inside the pop sensibility and the theatrical brinkmanship, is a relatively subtle commentary about the cyclical nature of violence.
In Terminus, a play by Gabriel Jason Dean running through 10 March 2018 at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, Eller is a sixty-five- year-old white woman who is losing her mind. It is 1994, and she lives in a condemned shack by the railroad tracks in rural Attapulgus, Georgia, with her seventeen-year-old grandson, Jaybo, who tries as best as he can to take care of her. Jaybo is African American. We eventually learn, through the ghosts that haunt her on stage, that Eller fell in love with a black army veteran named Henry, whom she pretend-married in 1953, long before marriage between black and white was legal. “I’d given anything to be able to walk down the street in the middle of the day with him.” They had a daughter, Jaybo’s mother. The picture of racial harmony collapses, however, the more we learn. Jaybo’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him; she may have drunk herself to death. Jaybo’s father Bones, a white man who has been a marginal and despised figure in his life, tells Jaybo that he is not the bad guy that his grandmother has been painting him out to be; his mother “was too ashamed of the skin on her back to actually let somebody care about her—because your granny made her feel worthless.” Ultimately, Eller herself confesses to an unspeakable act involving racial violence when she was a child.
Terminus is clearly rooted in the long Southern gothic tradition, in which racial violence is often an ingredient in a stew that features dark secrets, destitution, and decay. It’s such an obvious genre piece that I wonder if it reminds audiences of the complex history of black pain in the South, or just triggers associations with William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
In Black Light, a cabaret-like show at Joe’s Pub, a diva-like character, Jomama Jones, portrayed by Daniel Alexander Jones, sings a dozen original songs, and tells stories from her childhood. One of them is about her Aunt Cleotha, whom she visited reluctantly when her family brought her down South during the summers. Aunt Cleotha only had one good arm. One night, she sat on the porch late at night, a shotgun to one side, an electric porch (a flashlight) on the other. She said she was bearing witness, and she told Jomama how she lost her arm: a police dog bit it off when she was a child marching for civil rights.
One day recently, years after Aunt Cleotha died and Jomama had inherited her possessions, “I stood there with the shotgun in one hand, and the light in the other. I’ll be honest with you: I’m still standing in the same place. I haven’t made up my mind.”
On stage today and in our country, black pain is not safely in the past.
Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.