In “Soft”, teenagers who are affected by Donja R. Love’s new play at the MCC Theater wonder where the black boys will go. In the end, the audience gets the answer: a flower-filled paradise where black boys are really themselves.
The play often takes place inside a boarding school classroom for troubled children; Mr. Greene is a young English teacher who has his own history with the law. Isaiah tries to reach six black and brown students in his classroom so he is not lost in the system, which his boss sees as inevitable.
Love’s play is one of several recent off-Broadway productions in which contemporary liberation comes at the end of stories of black oppression. The works share a familiar setup that serves as a sort of urban parable about the ways in which the education system and other institutions are harming and trapping people of color.
In their attempts to overcome their adversity with their characters, playwrights often face the same narrative obstacle: How can these stories end? In a world where the odds are stacked against these black characters, there is liberation, and in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, artists are newly responsible for portraying blackness as responsible.
There are three variations on the end of redemption: death or transcendence to heaven; To escape from an institution; Or the self-conscious meta-narrative pivot. Each can have its risks. The first may come as an idealization of death, and yet another example of a black tragedy has been made into a beautiful scene. The other two – avoidance or narrative pivot – can be viewed as ways of working around the faint realities of how black people are treated in our society.
But what about the kind of release that best serves the story while reflecting on our reality?
Throughout “Soft”, flowers are an important feature: a student sketches them in his notebook and in his writing assignments; The petals fall from the ceiling like a gentle rain on the audience’s head; And they set the stage for the entire show.
In the end, Jackie Sibley’s Drury’s “Fairview” and Alesia Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (directed by Whitney White with “Soft”) separated The Black and Brown audience members; They have been asked to climb up to receive a Posey of Flowers from a dead black boy who now lives in Eden. The emotion is beautiful – a reminder to black audience members to celebrate their tenderness and vulnerability.
When I attended the show (scheduled to run at MCC until July 10), several people started crying. I was feeling sad but sad. Despite the beauty of the show, this is another story that ultimately ended in black deaths. Perhaps the beauty part is the loss; Flowers indicate ephemeral grace.
Is there any version of black heaven that doesn’t come with an asterisk – some big disaster, accident or death?
A similar question came to mind when watching the Broadway production of Antoinette Chinoni Nwandu’s “Passover” last year. This “Waiting for Godot” – a drama inspired by race and police brutality, ends with a black man, suddenly with divine power, wandering in a lush garden paradise, but only after he has redeemed the white man from his sins and allowed him to venture there. First.
Nwandu has spoken of the edits he made to the end of the play, as there is no easy conclusion to the story of enduring reality in America. Unfortunately, the new end of the play seems to have only occurred after white oppression if black liberation occurred without knowing it; Even though a black character has finally found agency, he still arrives second to heaven.
In the production of Monsa Ra’s “… What the End Will Be,” Roundabout Theater Company until July 10 at the Laura Pells Theater, the release is a happy lover’s retreat. The play takes us into the home of three generations of gay black men: the eldest, Bartholomew, the widow who lived with her male spouse after his wife died, is now ill and shares a house with her son Maxwell. Hate career with violent line and joke with Maxwell’s close teenage son, Tony, boastful boyfriend. With virtually no plot or character development, “… What the End Will Be” stumbles toward the moment of redemption, but, once again, the cost is the life of a black man.
Bartholomew struggles with bone cancer in the last days of his ordeal, hallucinating the image of his dead mate putting sunflowers on set all the time. The play makes his gay black veteran a martyr and gives him death, because “burying gay people” is still not as important and problematic in entertainment and culture today.
And to make it even worse, the death of Bartholomew is a complete lesson to their son and grandson, helping them to relate to each other and to embrace some version of their weirdness. A dying black man becomes a symbol of familial bonds, gay love and self-acceptance – his death provides redemption for other characters.
In any case, death is just a kind of escape. In Dave Harris’s “Exception to the Rule,” a classroom of black students in detention, the Law Breakfast Club, seeks a literal escape for the inclusion of a cliche metaphor about the failures of the education system and the school – the prison pipeline.
Students, all black, and Martin Luther King Jr. got stuck on the Friday before the weekend, wondering where the biker, gossip and their vivid absenteeism teachers were; After all, they cannot leave without their permission. Erica, a student who is highly regarded in this bald imprisonment allegation, is judged and ridiculed for her “good girl” behavior, not because she’s not working hard enough for her peers, not code switching, and not following the rules to get out of a broken system.
Only Erica is the one who finally escapes arrest, and the others are potentially trapped in this limbo. But the takeaway is vague. Should we commend Erica for her anti-blackness, her privilege, her Uncle Tom maneuvers? Otherwise, her escape was strangely celebrated in the play (at the roundabout’s Black Box Theater until June 26). Or is this the most cynical ending imaginable?
James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Hamm” plays at the Public Theater until July 17, adapting the “Hamlet” story and then breaking up. Although Shakespeare’s origins almost all end up in the body bag, the contemporary version of Izams challenges the notion that black characters – particularly gay black characters – must end in tragedy.
The show’s incarnations for Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes are all homosexual despite the homophobia, gender stereotyping and toxic masculinity in their families. But these characters decide they don’t kill each other; They do not die today.
Their emancipation – the joyous disco-drag cotillion types – is twofold: a challenge to the tragic prospects within the play, and the promise of gender expression, vulnerability, and intolerance about sexuality outside of it. Ever breaking from the traps of tragedy and the social narrative of black death, Ijames gives his characters the ability to emancipate from the grinding institutions that grow up around them.
On the one hand, you can reach the end of “Fat Ham” and see it as an easy out, a way for playwrights to write a tragedy without writing another black tragedy. You could say that the final redemption of the play is just a kind of Deus Ex Machina, with a writer showing his hand to save his back.
And yet in the stylized, self-conscious world of “Fat Ham,” the characters have the agency to create change. They can see the world around them and the ways they suppress and choose to invite their paradise. They find their own redemption. Rather than being victims, they are their own protectors.