Race Records; the Theatre

By Lahr, John | The New Yorker, October 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

Race Records; the Theatre


Lahr, John, The New Yorker


The realization that Negroes are no better nor no worse, and at times just as boring as everybody else, will hardly kill off the population of the nation," Zora Neale Hurston wrote in a 1950 essay calling for a new kind of storytelling to expose "the internal lives and emotions of the Negroes." America, she argued, was always prepared to accept portraits of the exceptional Negro and of the quaint Negro. In both literature and drama, however, these narratives violated the most cherished of aesthetic goals: to hold a mirror up to nature. Hurston's droll essay, which was a salvo at American Anglo-Saxons' lack of curiosity about real black life, seems to me also to have some relevance for African-American playwrights who write from the outside, rather than the inside, and feel compelled to impose an ideology on their characters, rather than letting those characters discover their own complex meaning. Charles Fuller's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning melodrama, "A Soldier's Play" (revived at the Second Stage), set on an Army base in Louisiana in 1944, is a case in point; the play is really an essay in military mufti, which appears to disabuse us of racial myths even as it reinforces them. This slick drama brings the quaint Negro and the exceptional Negro face to face, like integers from the old formula which fail to factor out into a new kind of narrative equation.

The quaint Negro here is Private C. J. Memphis (Mike Colter), a superstitious, happy-go-lucky, blues-strumming, ball-playing, rural Mississippi recruit identi-fied as "a clown in blackface! A niggah!" by the hectoring, sadistic black Sergeant Vernon Waters (James McDaniel), who frames Memphis for murder in order to get him out of his company. Before the play opens, the auditorium fills with the voices of the Andrews Sisters singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree"; the sweetness of the sound is a direct contrast to the sourness of the American black experience we are about to witness. The lights come up on the pie-eyed Waters floundering on the ground, laughing to himself and muttering, "They'll still hate you! They still hate you. . . . They still hate you!" Someone appears in the shadows and shoots him dead. The pronominal question (just who are "they"--who is the hated and who is doing the hating?) hangs over the rest of the evening, which unfolds in flashback, like a TV detective story, with the exceptional Negro--the play's eloquent narrator, Captain Richard Davenport (Taye Diggs), a Howard University-educated lawyer and a sort of Jackie Robinson of jurisprudence--unravelling the mystery as he interviews the members of Waters's platoon. In the process, Davenport also reveals how racism can drive both blacks and whites mad.

The institutional racism of the military is transparent: the troops are segregated. The psychological effects of being debased and brutalized in a second-class life are harder to see. Here, they play themselves out in Waters's self-loathing abusiveness. "If it wasn't for you Southern niggahs yessahin', bowin' and scrapin', scratchin' your heads, white folks wouldn't think we were all fools!" he tells his men at one point. With his bowwow military punctilio, which has earned him the nickname Ole Stone Ass, Waters has adopted the racist scorn of his oppressors. "White man runnin' rings around us," he says. "We need lawyers, doctors--generals--senators! Stop thinkin' like a niggah!" Waters is a victim turned victimizer. He humiliates, betrays, abuses his power. He tries to goad the most rebellious of his soldiers, Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Anthony Mackie), into a fistfight. Peterson, however, names Waters's game and links it neatly to slavery. "White man gives them a little job as a servant--close to the big house--and when the boss ain't looking, old copycat niggahs act like they the new owner! They take to soundin' like the boss--shoutin', orderin' people aroun'--and when it comes to you and me--they sell us to continue favor," he says. …

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