Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks make the recognizable unrecognizable—which is to say, they make it art.
When I was a boy, I went to shows—plays, concerts, recitations—with my older sister Bonnie. This was in Brooklyn, in the early nineteen-seventies. The venue we liked best was the East, in Crown Heights, which had been established, in part, in response to the Black Arts Movement, which was itself founded in reaction to the death of Malcolm X. In those days, anti-honky fever was high, and, just as I flinched when I encountered racial slurs in books or on TV, I backed away from the militancy of the plays I saw at the East and elsewhere. Watching those spectacles, I wondered why, if whiteness was supposed to be rendered powerless on a black-owned stage, it was still dictating the action. I didn’t know then that what I was looking for was diversity, stories about how America made all Americans, in their male, female, queer, colored, white, and misshapen glory.
Aside from the gay male postwar writers I revered as a teen-ager (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, mid-to-late William Inge), the playwrights I learned the most from were women of color. I never entirely forsook the theatre I saw as a kid—agitprop grows out of agitation, and that’s interesting, too—but what I discovered, as I read and saw works by Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange, then Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, and, most recently, Dominique Morisseau, was that there was, and is, a broader perspective out there, one in which “the man” wasn’t the entire issue: being was. Those women playwrights of color made the recognizable unrecognizable—which is to say, they made it art.
What also struck me about these playwrights was that they invariably wrote in one of two ways: either their work was highly stylized and poetic, a dreamscape of the soul, or it was naturalistic and conventionally structured, with political overtones. The fifty-two-year-old Nottage is a master of the latter voice, and Parks, who is fifty-three, has dominated the former since her first full-length play, “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom,” opened, in a small Brooklyn theatre, in 1989, and changed everything. Both artists have productions in New York just now, and each raises fascinating questions about how black theatre has evolved since the Black Arts Movement, and why so many black plays are naturalistic or fantastic, with little, if any, absurdism in between. Perhaps black life is absurd enough already; there’s no need for theatre to dress it up.
In her best work, Nottage offers a powerful critique of the American attitude toward class, and how it affects the decisions we make, including whom to love and how. “Sweat” (at the Public) has fraternity at its heart, but also the violence and the suspicion that can result from class aspirations. The play is set, primarily, in 2000—several scenes take place eight years later—in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. The bartender at this dark, funky joint is the white, salt-and-pepper-haired Stan (James Colby), who walks with a limp—he lost a leg in a factory accident years ago. His Colombian bar back, Oscar (Carlo Albán), is quiet but watchful, the target of occasional casual racism. Stan likes Oscar, and he steps in from time to time to put down the put-downers. Stan is a father figure to his patrons, too, but he lets his parental guard slip when a woman named Tracey (Johanna Day) enters in a leather jacket, red hair flying, in the opening scene.
It’s Tracey’s birthday, and she wants to shake off the tedium of the day with her pals from the steel-tubing factory where she works—the hard-drinking Jessie (Miriam Shor) and the high-voiced, trying-to-keep-pain-at-bay Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), who is black. You can feel Tracey’s need to be alive in a non-work environment, because what else is there for vibrant women like her and Cynthia but the pulsating moments after work at a deadening job? Still, it’s work that links the women, just as it bonds Tracey’s son, Jason (Will Pullen), and Cynthia’s kid, Chris (Khris Davis), who are also employed at the factory. The bar is a home away from home for all of them, a place where they can momentarily forget how life has failed them. (As with any American play set in a bar, Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” hovers over the action, like a ghost.)
Eventually, Cynthia’s man, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), turns up to tell her that he’s sober now. But how can she believe what she’s heard so many times before? Brucie has picked her clean, emotionally and financially. Tracey’s in her corner—she wants Brucie to shut up and shove off—and in this perfectly written scene Nottage shows us how being defended and looked after by a friend is everything when you have so little control anywhere else.
But the bonds of friendship are tested when Cynthia becomes a foreman at the plant and huge changes occur: the new owners want the workers to take a buyout. What should Cynthia do? Betray her ambition by stepping down, or stay with a company that is forcing her friends and her child into unemployment? It’s an ingenious move on Nottage’s part to confront Cynthia with the conundrum of class aspirations, to give the black woman power over the white. Implicit in Nottage’s characterization is Cynthia’s fear that she’s less real, less black, because of her promotion, because of her desire to rise above what she was meant to be.
The workers go on strike. Unemployment breeds distrust and hatred. Jason attacks Chris, then turns on Oscar, because the scabs are Hispanic, like him. The director, Kate Whoriskey, stages this and the ensuing disasters with clarity and verve. Watching Jason, a powerless white man, try to reclaim power is terrifying, and Pullen combines confusion, force, doubt, and fear in such a way that you can’t avert your eyes.
Nottage and Whoriskey spent a great deal of time in Reading, interviewing factory workers and survivors—if that’s the word—of the economic downturn. You can hear the region in Nottage’s lines; the people there got into her bones. A kind of alchemy occurs in her rhythms, in the way a character’s lines jump on or sidestep another character’s emotions. Those emotions are harrowing, particularly in the scenes set in 2008, when we see where the economic devastation and chaos have left Tracey and Cynthia. Not to mention Oscar and the physically ruined Stan, who have both experienced a reversal of fortune but are still working together, partly because of their long-term bond and partly because, one imagines, it takes a long time for the formerly oppressed to understand how to make the world their own—that is, completely different.
The failure to make things different is at the heart of Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1990 work “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” (at the Pershing Square Signature Center). This exceptional production is directed by a great new talent, Lileana Blain-Cruz, whose work, earlier this year, on Alice Birch’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” was equally impressive; Blain-Cruz drew out the theatricality in Birch’s opaque text, thus bolstering the actors for the big game of performance. Parks has had no better director since Liz Diamond, who staged many of her early productions.
Parks loves metaphors, and the idea of something being both itself and something else entirely. Indeed, her work is the best support I know for an assertion made by Zora Neale Hurston, in her still startling 1934 essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression”:
The Negro’s universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as an evidence of something that permeates his entire self. And that thing is drama. . . . His interpretation of the English language is in terms of pictures. One act described in terms of another. Hence the rich metaphor and simile.
The overlong full title of “The Death of the Last Black Man” tells us what it’s about, but not what it’s really about, which is language—the rich sound and implications of black English. The play, which borrows elements from Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange, not to mention Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”—Parks is the premier hoodoo artist of the stage—tells the story of Black Man with Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts), who is married to Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff). (Previously, Ruff has been used by white directors to represent versions of the indomitable angry black woman; it’s a measure of Blain-Cruz’s strength as a director that we get to see Ruff act here, rather than be a symbol.) Various characters—Prunes and Prisms (the wonderful Miriam Sithole) and Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams), for instance—take the stage individually but also move en masse: they are ideas about blackness clustering together, then separating, like beautiful molecules, as we learn that Black Man with Watermelon is, in fact, dead.
Black Woman with Fried Drumstick tells the audience, “Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgo in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world. Uh! Oh. Don’t be uhlarmed. Do not be afeared. It was painless. Uh painless passin.” But Black Man’s death wasn’t actually painless, because no death is. What Parks is saying—and not saying—is that the marginalization of black men means that their lives can be trivialized and forgotten if there is no one around to remember them. Parks wants to remember them, and her effort to engage the politics of black male bodies recalls aspects of the Black Arts Movement, if at a distance. The black man who dies and lives to tell the tale in her play is not an Everyblackman (though Blain-Cruz makes a case for that by showing us a series of wrongful deaths—a lynching, an electrocution). He is Parks’s attempt to understand the black men she’s known—which is to say, the men in her family. It’s disorienting for a young colored girl to see her father, say, reduced to the world’s small vision of him, especially when he looms so large in her own life and imagination. I don’t know if Parks had that experience, but it’s more than likely that she did. Had my sister seen this stage poem, she would have recognized—somewhere in all that language that stands upright, topples over, then stands back up again, like any number of black men we’ve known—the life of the black man who helped make us but got lost when it came to trying to love us, or himself. ♦