Staging Race in Seattle, 2016: Paternalism and Its Discontents

Photo Credit: SIM USA. CC-BY-SA.

Photo Credit: SIM USA. CC-BY-SA.

“Am I not a man and brother?” asks the kneeling black man, chained hands clasped, looking upward to his invisible, nonblack observer. The image answers no. This suffering, supplicating black object is an opportunity. The morally beneficent may now pity the “man”, display him, redefine his value; they may upgrade their soul by recognizing his.

This Wedgwood medallion was once the icon of white abolitionism. Its paternalistic, self-aggrandising assumptions are with Seattle still, and now playing a part in performance culture. This year “race” has swept across Seattle’s dance and theatre stages. We are seeing more performers of color cast in “white” roles. More productions focus on black, Latino, and Asian experiences, and more explore cross-racial conflict. These concerns now extend beyond what we see, to how performance companies operate. Recently the Theatre of Puget Sound launched a Leadership for Social Change program, to assist performance companies in transforming themselves into anti-oppressive organizations. If producers of art are energetically addressing race, so too are critics. DeConstruct, of which I am a member, is a new collective dedicated to socially-engaged critique of Seattle performance.

The quality of “race”-focused performances has been uneven. Some of the more problematic productions are also among the most widely acclaimed. A good example is Disgraced, Seattle Rep’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning 2013 play. It was staged as part of the Rep’s “commitment to … encourage discussion around race, diversity, and our place in the world’ (program, p3). What the play does, in fact, is encourage discussion around Islam, Muslim Asians and Muslim Americans, and discourage consideration of anti-black racism.

Disgraced tackles the experiences of a corporate lawyer, Amir Kapoor, of Pakistani origins, whose New York career and interracial marriage are shredded in a perfect storm of Islamophobia, cuckoldry, and domestic violence, that erupts at a dinner party. Akhtar successfully exposes assimilation into white America as a risky, unsustainable ambition, for Asian men of Muslim descent. That white supremacy controls the terms of assimilation is clear from the outset, when Amir is seen posing for his white wife Emily’s painting. Her work is a modern rendition of Velasquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, his “Moorish” slave (both black and Muslim). Artist Emily, the play suggests, is but the liberal face of a brutal America that dehumanizes, and effectively enslaves, Muslim people.

This visual motif powerfully highlights Emily’s white privilege. But it also intimates that nonblack Muslims have supplanted black people as the targets of white domination. This continues with Akhtar’s portrayal of the black character Jory, who succeeds where Amir fails, and at his expense: she is the lawyer who receives the partnership once slotted for him. She is wife to Isaac, a Jewish art curator; they are the dinner guests whose revelations contribute to Amir’s violent outburst. Unlike the other dinner party members, Jory has no intellectual conversation. Her contribution to their analysis of Velasquez’s painting is to comment on Amir’s expensive taste in shirts. She gets her cultural knowledge from watching South Park, unlike her highbrow peers. She is exclusively interested in the gratifications of money, alcohol and food; she is lazy, perennially late to work and leaves her husband to do all the cooking. While the others have high cultural-intellectual capital, or inner torment, Jory has only a shallow “attitude”, as a no-nonsense, dogmatic Republican. She is a comic book cartoon, whom Akhtar pits against the dinner party others for humor. Her inconsistent conservative pronouncements seem governed by comedy rather than psychology.

It’s not only that Jory’s characterization lacks cohesiveness, depth, and doesn’t move beyond stereotype. It’s also that nothing in her presentation suggests that she, too, like Amir, might have encountered prejudice, discrimination, harassment, profiling, in her efforts to succeed in corporate white America. She can, it seems, easily attain a degree of assimilation that a Muslim man cannot. By making her character black, and obstacle-less, Akhtar implies anti-black racism to be a thing of the American past. This is patently false, as any glance at the news reveals.

Blackness could have provided the play with a compassionate entry into the different and overlapping racial experiences of people of color within a racist America. Instead, Akhtar turns racial suffering into a a zero-sum game, “won” by Asian Muslim men.

It was almost refreshing to go from the insidious messages of Disgraced to a more forthright embrace of black objectification, in Betroffenheit, a collaboration between Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot dance ensemble, and Jonathon Young’s Electric Company Theatre. This stunningly powerful show charts the real-life descent of lead performer Jonathon Young into drug addiction, following the tragic loss of his child, and two other youngsters, in a holiday cabin fire. The brilliant conceit for his addiction is a razzle-dazzle vaudeville show, where Jonathon operates at once as an emcee, audience, and performer. The ensemble—a small, virtuoso troupe of dancers—create a frenetic, intoxicating universe that promises refuge to a traumatized man. (Adding to his trauma is guilt at his failure to save the trapped children.) There is, of course, no refuge; the trauma continues to make its presence felt, in flashbacks, and is compounded by the choreography’s mounting, Fellini-esque, grotesquerie. The addict’s inner demons come to populate this inferno, and trap him inside it. Chief demon, and alter-ego, is—who better—the ensemble’s only black performer. Dressed in identical suits, their movements in synch, Jonathon and Jermaine Maurice Spivey pair up as emcees. At times, the black man performs solo dances lifted straight from minstrelsy tradition. Zip Coon lives on.

And no, for those who might want to appeal to “deconstructive intent”, or “irony”, this production is much too earnest, far too absorbed by the agony of its white protagonist, to want to squeeze in an anti-racist commentary on its own exploitation of black imagery. In a work that is otherwise tremendously inventive, this clichéd equation of black men with the dark forces that oppose and threaten white humanity’s happiness, reason, and health, is disappointing. As is, more generally, reducing a black person to a function of someone else’s psycho-drama: this is what Betroffenheit shares with Disgraced.

There are other kinds of problems in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, recently mounted at ACT to enthusiastic critical applause. This fictionalized portrait of Jack Johnson, America’s first black heavyweight boxing champion, deals with the years leading to that victory, 1905-1910. The play creates a backstory for “Ray Jackson”s decision to box, that centers on his teenaged older sister’s lack of positive body image. This stems from her repeated exposure to their pharmacy’s window adverts of white women modelling such products as toothpaste. Her desire to look like these women leads her to attempt to straighten her hair, at home, alone; the nine year old Ray comes home to a smell of “burning meat”, sees her through the screen door, crouching, with blood running down her neck, wants to help her, pounds on the door and can’t get in. That trauma has spurred him to become a pugilist who seeks by his success to “make things right”. What this means, one assumes, is that he aims to help make America a place where his sister will appreciate her own body’s natural beauty, and will see that value reflected in the media. This same sister, however, that has (inadvertently) triggered his career, shows up to ask him not to fight the ruling white champion. Rather than empower black folks, his fighting success is causing them injury, as angry whites now seek reprisals, lynching black men when bar disputes over his boxing escalate. The sister’s own children are now receiving horrific missives in books sent through the mail to their home. She fears an apocalypse that could descend on black communities should Johnson go on to win the title from a white man.

Adding to Jackson’s inner ethical dilemmas is his black coach, a former boxer, whose monologue gives the show its title. This is taken from “Battle Royal”, a haunting scene in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, where black youth, blindfolded, beat one another to a pulp, for the delight of the white audience whose coins, thrown into the ring, are the victor’s reward. Jackson proceeds to fight the white champion, and win.

There’s a great play, or more, to be written about the fascinating Jack Johnson, whose personal life, and career, are rich with conflict and complexity. The Royale, however, squanders the chance to develop real insight into the man’s life and times, going instead for the shallow rewards of melodrama. This rests on indifference toward the historical period it is supposed to evoke. Thematic opportunism and anachronism carry the day. Take Jackson’s alleged motivation for boxing: his concern for the cultural violence done to black women by a white media that excludes them from view and gives white women the monopoly on “beauty”. This violence is alive and well. As is the struggle against it. Just watch Viola Davis’ 2015 Emmy award acceptance speech, or read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. It’s somewhat implausible however that black women’s exclusion from affirmative media images would motivate a nine-year old Jack Johnson.

Ramirez, of course, has poetic licence to transform Johnson into a sensitive, pro-feminist race man. But his choice of a bad hair day to demonstrate female trauma is badly misjudged. For starters, black women had been regularly straightening their hair since abolition; Ray’s mother, or aunts, would have taught his sister how to do it. If she were inclined to engage, furtively, in a desperate act of self-loathing, hair straightening would not be that act. Neither does straight hair necessarily convey a desire to look white; in the late nineteenth-century it was an assertion of modernity over plantation-era rows and plaits (think Topsy). By the time of this “traumatic’ episode, too, black women were starting to develop the hair care industries (Annie Malone, Madame C. J. Walker) that would turn them into millionaires. Rather than see black women’s straightened hair as an index of white supremacy, and black captivity, the playwright might have seen it as the source of proud black female entrepreneurial capitalism.

But Ramirez isn’t interested in images of powerful black women, only in their victimhood. And he doesn’t confine the suffering to women, when he makes them the mouthpiece for whole communities allegedly endangered by the prospect of a black man winning the world heavyweight title. Remember, whites did not need the excuse of a triumphant black boxer to murder and torture black people. Although Ramirez’s play does not acknowledge it, lynchings were routine in the Jim Crow South long before Jack Johnson’s successes. Yes, his victories triggered further white violence. However, that does not seem to have stopped blacks, historically, from championing him as a race hero for breaking the color line. The immensely positive symbolism of his prowess evidently mattered more to them, than the threat of any physical harm that may ensue. (Once Johnson won the heavyweight title, his refusal to fight other black boxers cost him that community support; but that is another story. Like I say, Johnson’s life and times are fascinating.)

We need to ask what is accomplished by Ramirez’s preferences for a representation that deprives black people of inner resources, joy, collective social and political agency, and (with the exception of Johnson) financial power. This period saw Ida B Wells’ anti-lynching campaign, the formation of the Niagara movement, and an explosion of black media that reported on, and contested, white racism. To acknowledge such contexts and behaviors would undermine the play’s ideological agenda.

And so, that “royale” scene. Other than its sensational violence, the scene’s connection to the rest of the play is unclear. Is Ramirez invoking this as the gladiatorial, brutal reality that undergirds Johnson’s success? Is he suggesting that, on the contrary, Johnson now has the ability to transform that structure, by fighting white men instead of other blacks? The play seems content simply to throw the story into the ring for melodramatic pathos. In Ellison’s novel, this spectacle of suffering black fighters has a clear role in the narrator’s development. In this play, the spectacle of suffering is an end in itself.

I end, by way of contrast, with an unconscionable outlier: New City Theatre’s production of The Tempest. This blatantly ignored the fact that Shakespeare’s play concerns the colonization of black people. Sycorax, recall, is North African, and a witch who has been exiled to the island where her son is born, giving Caliban a “native” status that Prospero both disrespects and exploits, enslaving him and using his knowledge of the terrain. Prospero’s colonial rule extends to Ariel, who, unlike the human Caliban, is a supernatural being. The director, John Kazanjian, cast two white actors—Peter Crook and Mary Ewald—to alternate between the roles of Prospero and Caliban. The night I attended, Mary Ewald was Caliban. The teenage Elena Kazanjian was Ariel. This production chose not only to purge the play of its racial ingredients but also to perform it in ways that humanize the non-human Ariel, and dehumanize the human Caliban, reducing him to a monstrous other. A rich opportunity for exploring the complex human dynamics, and consequences, of a racially polarized, colonial space was lost. This version turned its back not only on the text, but also on the major postcolonial archive that has arisen in response to the play. Critical and creative contributions by Aimé Césaire, Sylvia Wynter, George Lamming, E. K. Brathwaite, David Wallace, Roberto Fernando Retamar: these are among the dramaturgical resources developed over the last 60 years. What an interesting conversation there could have been. Instead, there was an aggressive silence. How is it even possible, in the 21st century, for such productions of The Tempest to exist?

Perhaps such productions can exist because Seattle persists in being a complacently myopic, paternalistic city. Only in such conditions can black bodies be so easily ignored, misrepresented, stereotyped, and instrumentalised, and those responsible be rewarded with abundant applause. And it is we audiences, critics, editors, donors who have allowed these conditions to arise and to continue. We need to practice more rigorous critical reflection; and to demand it from our playwrights, choreographers, curators, companies, boards and directors. This is why DeConstruct exists.

Laura Chrisman is Nancy Ketcham Endowed Chair of English at the University of Washington, where she teaches African, black diaspora, and postcolonial studies. As President of the Black World Foundation, she publishes The Black Scholar Journal. As a cultural critic and granddaughter, Laura runs the Byron Randall Project. She is also on the Board of Directors of The Seagull Project.