Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Acting Black is not really a play. The prolific Brown has written and performed in plays for one actor, in which he takes on characters and puts himself in a narrative context. Not this time. In the first half of Acting Black, Brown appears as a lecturer, using a PowerPoint presentation to explain the notion of "acting black," its origins, as framed by the entertainment industry, and the scars it has caused and continues to inflect on American society. His lecture is performed without notes, very polished, laced with humor, anecdotes and descriptive imagery, but the man on stage is not playing a characterhe is quite himself, speaking directly to us, the audience.
Brown uses the far left-leaning French writer Jean Genet's play The Blacks: A Clown Show as a starting point. Genet, a white man, wrote the play for a cast of thirteen black actors. However, five of those actors play the parts of white people, whitening their face to take on those roles. The play, then, has eight black actors "acting black" and five black actors "acting white." Where, then, did white people's perception of what it means to "act black" come from? Brown pinpoints an exact time and place this happened: the place, Louisville, Kentucky, the year, 1828, and the person, white entertainer Thomas Dartmouth (Big Daddy) Rice, who adapted the tunes and dance typical of elder black men, blackened his face, and had a huge hit with the song and dance "Jump Jim Crow." The minstrel show was born.
The form caught on big time, cited as America's first homegrown form of entertainment. White actors in blackface portrayed blacks as foolish, shiftless, gullible, and without morality. Runaway slaves were depicted as regretful, missing their gracious plantation homes and kind masters. The "Negro Dandy," a hyper-sexualized city-slicker, was to be kept far away from white women. After the Civil War, there was interest in having black performers appear in minstrelsy, but they often did not have dark enough facesthe white men had darkened their faces to be black as coal, with chalk white makeup to highlight thick, broadly smiling lips. Thus, black performers blackened their own faces to meet white audiences' expectations of "acting black." This carried into the 20th century, with stereotyped black characters in popular culture. The conception of "acting black" expanded to also include crime, drug use and violence, images that promote fear, distrust and profiling on the part of whites and leading us to the crossroads at which society sits today. A line Brown shared from the work of W.E.B Du Bois captures the overall effect: "Under these circumstances, black is not a color but a condition."
Once the lecture concludes, we move without pause into the second half of Acting Black, a conversation among the audience members, which Brown facilitates. He invites us to talk about our response to what we just heard, what we learned, and what we will do about it. As a ground rule, he asks those audience members who are persons of color to withhold comment. His assertion is that race is a "white people's problem." Of course, people of color have to deal with the problem, but the problem lies in the hands of the whites. Therefore, he wants to give white audience members (I would guess that was 90% of the audience at the performance I attended) an opportunity to deal with one another around this issue. The program suggests a conversation of 30 to 45 minutes. Ours lasted a full hour, and ended only because the theater staff needed to shut down our space.
The discussion was a mix of childhood remembrances, rants against current political conditions (not surprisingly, the audience appears to be of one mind on this), and examples of individual acts of good-will toward the "others." Brown shared an observation that there was a lot of talking about our feelings, but none about how we, collectively, might tear down this social framework, abstractions created by the need for one group of people to convince themselves they not only have the upper hand over another group, but deserve to have that upper hand. He challenged those who believe that, albeit society is racist, they are not racist, stating that would be like swimming in the ocean and not getting wet.
Given the ongoing tension in race relationswhich some would call a crisisin our nation, it is likely that Carlyle Brown will continue to remount this provocative work, hopefully reaching audiences with less homogeneous ideas than were at the Illusion Theater yesterday. This is theater blended with community dialogue, laced with soul-searching. It is not a show, nor a story, but an invitation to deconstruct our reality, imagine alternatives, and strategies to achieve those alternatives. A 90-minute or two-hour session among like-minded strangers will not in itself get the job done, but it is a step, and, as the cliché goes, every journey begins with a first step.
Acting Black, a production of Carlyle Brown & Company in association with Illusion Theater, was performed September 27 through September 29, 2017, in Minneapolis MN. For information about Illusion Theater call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org. For information about Carlyle Brown & Company, go to carlylebrownandcompany.org.
Writer and Performer: Carlyle Brown; Director: Noel Raymond; Projection Design: Barb Brown; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachael Lantow; Production Stage Manager: Sarah Salisbury.