This past Friday, March 7, marked the 49th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the first of a series of marches in Alabama in 1965 that many say marked the emotional peak of the Civil Rights movement. Protesting the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and advocating for black voting rights, around six hundred marchers set across the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, where they were then beaten and tear-gassed by state police. The horrors of Bloody Sunday, particularly the iconic photograph of Amelia Boynton left for dead in the arms of another protester, lit the fire that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
It was also in 1965 that Douglas Turner Ward’s controversial satire Day of Absence premiered in Manhattan. The year before, the Black Repertory Group was founded. All of this was swirling through my mind as I sat in a dark, nearly empty theater on Bloody Sunday’s anniversary, watching Black Repertory Group’s revival of Ward’s one-act play.
Day of Absence is set in a timeless, no-name Southern town and is often billed as a “reverse minstrel show,” with an African-American cast donning whiteface and impersonating all the town’s white folk, from the bumpkins to the Mayor. It starts with two storefront yokels, Luke and Clem, who painstakingly drawl their way through an otherwise uneventful, hot morning, when it dawns on them that “somp’ums outta kilter” — namely, that the town’s black population, or “nee-gras,” as they are called, have mysteriously vanished. Panic swiftly sets in as the whites realize no one is left to wash their cars, clean their toilets, cook their food, or take care of their children, and that they haven’t the slightest clue how to be functioning adults without the help of their “darkies.”
The popularity (and controversy) of Day of Absence helped pave the way for Ward to win the 1966 Drama Desk Award for writing, and to cofound the revolutionary Negro Ensemble Company. Its themes have been reproduced in many other plays, parodies, and satires involving other marginalized groups, including Mexicans, women, and gays. And while satire involving racial tensions seems to (depressingly) never go out of style, much of Ward’s humor felt flat and uninspired in 2014. Director Sean Vaughn Scott attempted to amp up the slapstick and miming factors of the play, which garnered a few chuckles (I especially liked it when, during the Mayor’s awkward and impassioned televised speech to get the town’s blacks to come back, he says, “Just give us a sign!” and the female aide behind him took his words literally and spelled it out with sign language), but most of the genuine hilarity seemed to come from the unscripted and improvised moments of the evening, which arose, in part, due to technical snafus.
Smack dab in the center of the stage was a giant projector screen, which displayed a rotating mélange of jargon — “composite, scanning, DVI” — on loop, as if waiting to be connected to a computer. About fifteen minutes in, someone finally turned it off, and the screen remained blank for the duration. I’m not sure if they actually intended to use the screen. There were also some lighting malfunctions, which left the actors to deliver their lines in the dark for several beats. One such moment, however, gave rise to the funniest line of the production, when the exasperated Mayor shouted, “Great! First we lose our negros and now we lose our lights.” It was bits like this that made the show endearing, despite its technical failings and its excruciatingly slow pace.
The spirited and capable cast did what they could to bring Ward’s simple satire to life, but part of the problem was that there weren’t enough butts in seats. Including myself and my plus-one, there were roughly ten people in the whole theater, which was made even more jarring by the auditorium’s cavernous size. The perks of such an intimate experience were that audience members actually talked to each other, a rarity in most theater settings, and our host, wearing a red velour track suit and a winning smile, broke out the good wine glasses and poured us as much sparkling wine as we wanted. It was definitely one of the most unorthodox theater experiences I’ve had, and one that brought up many uncomfortable questions about the state of black theater today, which is disappearing more and more — coincidentally, much like the black population in Ward’s play.
Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, LaToya London, and Kelita Smith are among those who’ve performed at the Black Rep in the past, so seeing its great halls so empty on a Friday night made me sad.
“If you liked the show, tell somebody,” the cast told us at the show’s end. “And if you didn’t like the show, tell somebody anyway!” I’m telling you to go not because Absence is the greatest play you’ll ever see, but because its existence is important. Or, as Sade Lythcott, CEO of the National Black Theatre, told The Root, “[Black theaters] become the life force of how we’re seen in the world. It balances out that energy and information you get from the media that still polarizes and marginalizes what it is to be black in this country. If we don’t have the alternative then we might as well die.”