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North Carolina-born slave narrative takes the stage as black theater festival continues

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When two Duke professors were looking for material for a black theater festival, they found two pieces from equally fraught periods in African-American history, separated by a century.

Last week, Ed Bullins' Night Beast, which occurs on an all-black planet, opened "The Theme Is Blackness" festival, curated by Duke Theater Studies faculty and presented at Manbites Dog Theater by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. This weekend, from Nov. 10–13, the festival offers the North Carolina premiere of Harriet Jacobs, Lydia Diamond's dramatic rendering of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the canonical female slave narrative set partly in Edenton, N.C.

Little Green Pig artistic director Jay O'Berski and his festival co-coordinator, Duke professor Jennifer Brody, view the event as a way to push the diversity envelope in local theater. O'Berski taught a black theater festival class, which allowed Duke students to learn the theater business from performance to lighting to show promotion. It helped desegregate the department, where he estimates that only 10 percent of majors and minors are people of color; supplemented the infrequent offerings of a student-run black theater troupe; and highlighted the critical shortage of black actors and stage crew workers in drama.

"I've been in the department for 15 years, and we've never had any black directors. And in my entire career, I've only seen one black stage manager. I would be happy to never do an all-white cast ever again," O'Berski said. To up the diversity factor behind the scenes, the festival used an N.C. Arts Council grant to foster black stage designers, and Night Beast marked the design debut of Geraud Staton of Durham.

The plays will similarly push audiences to think about, and beyond, race. This weekend's Harriet Jacobs is based on the true story of a 15-year-old slave girl who, hounded by her master's sexual predation, hid in an attic for years before escaping to the North. But, as salient as race is to slavery and the play, the production doesn't visually mark race, since the actors playing both the slave and the slaveowner are black.

"Think about how many [black] actors have this opportunity. Diane Sands was among the first to be cast in a white role. The notion is that a white actor can play everything. You can see this with Miss Saigon. But cross-casting is a way to employ black actors ... The question is: Can you see someone, the actor, as a blank canvas?" said Brody.

She links the two plays by the concept of fugitivity: being on the run and trying to preserve oneself. "Night Beast features rebels in the future, and Incidents is about an actual fugitive and the irony of finding the loophole between freedom and containment," she said, as the slave girl makes choice after uncomfortable choice to elude her master's desires. In both plays, the characters resist dehumanization or death, but resistance and victory have dubious payoffs.

Amaris Whitaker, a recent Duke graduate, plays the slave Mary in Harriet Jacobs (a character not in the original narrative). She said that Diamond, who also adapted Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye for the stage, "has an extraordinary way of presenting the psychological toll of slavery." It is clear in Diamond's adaptation of the 1861 narrative how slavery degrades everyone: Mr. Norcomb, the lecherous slaveowner; Harriet, a girl initiated in the system's perverse morality; and the plantation wives who miraculously don't see their male relatives' not-so-covert groping of their slaves but police the same slaves with hawkeyed vigilance and cudgels.

"These people are numb, and this is a painful story, but the historical wounds of slavery do not heal in little more than 100 years," Whitaker said. "Lydia takes this story and focuses on Harriet's relationship with Mr. Sands [a young white lawyer who fathers her children]. She focuses on Harriet and Tom [an enslaved man who wants to marry young Harriet]; it's about relationships. The play takes the time to show the humanity of a person even under all these constraints." As Diamond, who was based in Boston, writes it, Harriet is not merely a slave girl buffeted by forces outside her control. She's an adolescent who has fantasies of living in a house of her own, who kisses a boyfriend behind her grandmother's back and alternates between teenage cheekiness and melancholy.

In Night Beast, adapted from a 1964 screenplay, the landscape is a dystopian planet populated entirely by former African-Americans. But there is no unity in this monoracial planet: Some people called New Lifers are suspected of carrying and spreading an illness that ravaged Earth and prompted a wave of intergalactic migration. They are being systematically exterminated by the Colonialists in a block-by-block war. It's neither your standard racial oppression story line nor an allegory of black-on-black violence.

O'Berski, who adapted and directed Night Beast, saw opportunity in Bullins' script. Its story of internecine, nonracial violence—and the unlikely love story sandwiched between all the shooting and shouting—provide a vehicle for introducing theatergoers to the 75-year-old writer's work.

Bullins, who now lives in Roxbury, Mass., "is a lion that's been forgotten," O'Berski said. "Without him, there would have never been Shaft. There would have never been [Quentin] Tarantino. There would have never been blaxploitation."

And Bullins' oeuvre is a distinct departure from today's black popular theater, mostly gospel plays and the Tyler Perry Madea franchise, with Perry cross-dressing as the beloved gun-toting senior hell-raiser.

"We're trying to close the gap between the NPR crowd and the Tyler Perry churchgoing crowd. Right now, we're in separate rooms. To exist on a diet purely of Tyler Perry will make you as ill as a diet of just Shakespeare," said O'Berski.

If blackness and humanity are themes here, so, too, is adaptation. The screenplay on which Night Beast is based was Bullins' clever tweaking of the "kill whitey" play in the black nationalist theater tradition, where race radicals take down "Da Man." "The Theme Is Blackness" built on that foundation and added the sci-fi approach. Diamond's play pared down the slave narrative's sometimes verbose and sentimental 19th-century language. Harriet director Dana Marks crafted a physical vocabulary, in which the Incident actors convey as much with a shaking hand or a convulsive plucking of their clothing as they do with their dialogue.

In their references to the past and future, the two productions in this festival have a spookily contemporary feel. In Night Beast there's a Black House, where President Baraka lives and exercises shaky rule over a contentious society. In shades of the Rwandan genocide, the New Lifers are derided as "cockroaches," and the New Lifers are insurgents. Sound familiar?

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