Previously, I’d only read the play, and in the transition from page to stage, one of the biggest differences lay in how its most offensive lines registered. The first segment of the play is a burlesque of black stand-up comedy: Think of the most obscene comedian you’ve ever heard and the worst you’ve ever been called out on your racism, multiply that by about five, and mix in the wild imagination of an artist, and you’ll have a vague idea of what to expect. Just seeing Lee’s words written is shocking enough (I’ll mention only incest and pencils; let your mind wander), but it’s a different experience entirely to hear the words in the company of a bunch of affluent, white, middle-aged Texans. You are much more conscious of how your reaction might be received, by actors and performers alike, and thus less willing to react honestly.
And I’m not sure what my reaction was. I went into the play wanting to like it, wanting my companion (my mother) to like it. And some lines really did work, as in when the comedian dispenses with parody and launches into the part of his monologue about how to manage your racism:
TRY TO MAKE THINGS BETTER BY NOT CONSTANTLY ASKING ME TO PROVE THAT WHAT I EXPERIENCE IS REALLY RACISM OR REFERRING TO THE FACT THAT I’M BLACK OR MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT MY BACKGROUND OR THE KIND OF MUSIC I LISTEN TO OR WHO I DATE, AND WHEN I CALL YOU OUT ON YOUR BULLSHIT, JUST FUCKING SAY I’M SORRY AND TRY NOT TO DO IT AGAIN!
But other moments in Stan Wojewodski’s production fell flatter than I’d envisioned, a failing I’m honestly not sure I can attribute to the actors. I’m more inclined to believe that the audience, myself included, wasn’t ready for the show—which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see it so much as that it destabilizes to realize that you haven’t progressed as much as you'd thought.
The show proceeds from the stand-up comic to a parodied, nouveau-minstrelsy fable of a young black man’s attempt to become a rap star, then to a relatively representational scene of a house party hosted and attended by what appear to be well-educated, upper-middle-class young African-Americans. This last section contains the play’s most conventional, accessible humor; here, even my mother laughed out loud a few times. Afterward, she asked me what justified the first two sections, with the comedian and the aspiring rapper. For her they contained only gratuitous shock, offending only for the sake of offending.
(Adam A. Anderson, Christopher Piper, Akron Watson, Beverly Johnson and David Jeremiah at the house party from hell.)
Though I see her point, I oppose it. I feel that the exaggerated, profoundly discomfiting first scenes frame the way we approach the third, more realistic scene, making us aware of the totality, the pervasiveness of racial inequity and our own complicity in it, as well as highlighting all the different levels by which race is performance—all of which establishes the possibility for the play’s explosive final lines.
But I could not find these words at the time of our discussion, and I don’t know if they’d make much of a difference even now. She asked a good question: “What was the point of that?” And I couldn’t answer it. Perhaps all this is just to say that, should I continue with my plan to write about Lee for my thesis, I’m going to have to investigate her work much more deeply than I thought.