Sunday, January 31, 2010

A postscript on "post-racial" Boston theatre

This is a brief postscript about Harriet Jacobs, which closed this weekend at the Central Square Theater, and which I'm only writing about because the cast of the production was so strong I felt I had to applaud them in print. Alas, the play, by Lydia R. Diamond, struck me as even weaker than the same author's wacky Voyeurs de Venus, which I suffered through last year. Diamond trafficks in sanctimonious psycho-biography disguised as pedagogy, and certainly the complicated life of the heroic Harriet Jacobs deserves better than the flat proclamations she has provided here. But as the playwright is sexy and connected (friends with Peter DuBois of BU, where she teaches, and actually married to a Harvard prof), I guess we're stuck with her for the time being.

And so are these actors, it seems. I don't think I've seen the sparkling Kortney Adams since she had to scream at the bare boobies in Voyeurs; and why the hell is that? She's got Shakespeare's Rosalind, or maybe Shaw's Candida, written all over her. Why is she doomed to declaim the likes of Lydia R. Diamond? Likewise when did I last see the wonderful Ramona Lisa Alexander? I guess it was in the riveting In the Continuum over a year ago - another "black play." To be fair, I recall the Actors' Shakespeare Project cast both the sweet Sheldon Best and the luminous Kami Rushell Smith (above left, as Harriet) in their recent Much Ado, so here's to them for freeing a few of these actors from the ghetto of political correctness. And the Wheelock Family Theatre, bless 'em, cast the hunky De'Lon Grant in both Saint Joan and A Tale of Two Cities. The soulful Obehi Janice, meanwhile, has only just begun to be seen locally at all.

This isn't really meant as a jab at the show's producer, Underground Railway Theater - I'm glad somebody is hiring these folks - except insofar as the choice of play is concerned. Even within the political parameters of "young, female and black" I just have to believe there are better playwrights out there than Lydia R. Diamond. Of course to be fair, American slavery was so horrific that it would take a truly great dramatist to create art from it rather than agitprop - still, 150 years on, isn't it time we began demanding that? On the plus side, designer Susan Zeeman Rogers's channeling of Kara Walker was mildly interesting, and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian at least kept things moving, although she seemed satisfied to also keep them somewhat superficial. Then again, what other choice did she have? Oh, well. Here's hoping that Diamond's Stick Fly, which opens soon at the Huntington, marks a step up from, and out of, this writer's ongoing post-graduate seminar.


  1. "Of course to be fair, American slavery was so horrific that it would take a truly great dramatist to create art from it rather than agitprop - still, 150 years on, isn't it time we began demanding that?"

    Have you read any of the one-acts of Georgia Douglas Johnson? She's not young (been dead for a while now.) But her plays are pretty extraordinary in being able to do just that.

  2. I have not - but I will forward her name on to Underground Railway Theater immediately!

  3. I find it interesting that you suggest that the skilled performers in "Harriet Jacobs" (all of whom are Black) are talented enough to perform in plays by Shakespeare or Shaw rather than wasting their time on the words of Lydia Diamond -- a contemporary, Black, female playwright. I would suggest that you speak to someone who is not a middle-aged white male about their experience viewing "Harriet Jacobs" (and, if possible, their experience viewing Shakespeare and Shaw plays, or "All my Sons" at the Huntington, which you enjoyed so much). Report back and let us know what that conversation was like.

  4. Sorry, Isabella, but that particular gambit won't get you far. I'm happy to report that many people privately express reservations about Ms. Diamond, but know better than to fight the current tide, particularly because they know folks like you will come after them with insinuations like that one. (I don't mind, though, I'm used to it.)

    I do wonder, however, what the reactions of your not-middle-aged-white-male friends would be to a treatment of the story of Harriet Jacobs by a truly talented black, female playwright. I imagine it would knock their socks off. As it would mine. But then that's the difference between you and me.

  5. I can't speak to Ms. Diamond's other work, but I will say that I find "Harriet Jacobs" to be a moving and thoughtful telling of an important story -- one that deserves to be heard, and has been silenced for much too long (the program note on the history of Jacobs' story was fascinating and horrifying. I certainly never knew about her life or her book before hearing of this play). I also think the play very directly and elegantly addresses the numbness we often feel when viewing stories about traumatic historical events, by asking us to consider that what we think we know about history is incomplete at best. The Harriet character repeatedly turned to the audience, reminding us that she herself did not understand the system of slavery, even though she lived under it, and asking us to consider that it might be almost impossible to understand.

    The audience I watched the play with (an audience made up primarily of high school students) made comments about how they were able to view American history in a new light -- one comment that stuck with me, made by a young Black man, was that other stories about slavery had always left him angry and ashamed, whereas this one left him thinking about the components of the institution of slavery -- the fact that the institution was about power, money, and privilege, and not about race. As I think you are suggesting in your response to my "insinuations", contemporary conversations about our country's flawed history can all too quickly become conversations about race, and by extension, about identity politics. To my mind, this play lifts the conversation out of that worn out track -- something that I appreciate. And judging by the entirely sold-out run of the play, including the addition of extra performances and, from what I can gather, standing ovations at each one, I don't think I'm alone in this appreciation. I think "Harriet Jacobs" did knock the socks off of a lot of people -- including me, and the colleagues with whom I attended the performance. That doesn't mean there isn't room to go further, but I think it's a mistake to dismiss this play out of hand, as it feels to me you have done. That response just doesn't feel like it furthers the conversation that our city, and nation, deserves to have around these really challenging issues.

  6. You know, I think I'll go just a little further into why I feel Ms. Diamond is such a weak playwright. It's obvious she has emotional issues that she could access as dramatic material; there's a strong vein of sexual horror running through both Harriet Jacobs and Voyeurs de Venus, for example, along with hints of intriguing obsessions with trust and power. But Ms. Diamond doesn't actually work through this material - instead she conceals it in political preaching. Yet whom is there left to convince that slavery was horrifying? Nobody I know, and certainly nobody who's going to buy a ticket to the Underground Railway Theater! And why, exactly, could the playwright not deal with her emotional material while at the same time working through the full story of Harriet Jacobs? There's really no reason, except that Diamond's not that interested in Jacobs, frankly. Indeed, her version of Harriet's story is bizarrely truncated, because when Jacobs no longer serves as a proxy for her own issues, Diamond simply drops her: The End. This is why her writing feels so dishonest - and why, btw, she makes me realize how lucky Tennessee Williams actually was (to take one example) to have been prevented from an explicit homosexual politics in his drama. He was therefore forced to grapple with the actual emotions he was feeling (albeit in a disguised heterosexual mode). Intriguingly, this deception led to honest drama rather than agitprop.

  7. Well, I understand now (these comments happened in nearly real time) that while I don't like Harriet Jacobs because it's agitprop, Isabella liked it for the very same reason.

    Now bad art can sometimes, it's true, lead to good talkbacks. And really, if people aren't aware of the Harriet Jacobs story, then I suppose there's some value in this play. (Since I'm already familiar with the Jacobs tale - indeed, familiar enough to notice where Diamond fudged her facts - I'm coming at the script from a very different perspective.) But I don't agree that Diamond's script rises above the "worn track" of race - it's very much in that track, to my mind, but then why shouldn't it be? You can't talk about American slavery without talking about race. That's not exactly why Harriet Jacobs even fails as agitprop.

    Because here's the rub - not only is Diamond's script bad art, it is, indeed, bad agitprop. Why? Well, to me, agitprop is just fine when clear political action is imminent and justified - and I suppose you could argue that we're still in such a moment around race in this country, but I'd argue the opposite: racial discussions could, instead, polarize us in a way that actually prevents us from accomplishing the social transformations we desperately need at this juncture. It's not lost on me, for instance, that every social democracy that has implemented national healthcare, did so at a time of national cohesion. This implies that the proper agitprop for 2010 should be about cohesion, not identity politics. But that doesn't serve the career track in the academy, hence politically-correct grist for the tenure mill like Harriet Jacobs keeps appearing.

    But even beyond that kind of practical political thinking, there's the question of the type of agitprop that Diamond produces. To me, agitprop is strongest when it is open-ended and non-prescriptive - in short, dedicated to liberation and opportunity rather than ideology.

    But Diamond is highly ideological, in an academic default mode that many educated people assume (wrongly) is about liberation rather than groupthink. As just one example of this tendency, I'd point to the cringe-worthy moment in which Diamond has Harriet Jacobs profusely apologize to the audience for her affair with a white man. Not only does this flatten the character and rip her out of all historical context, it's also creepy in its political assumptions. Who, exactly, is in a position to judge Harriet Jacobs for her decisions? Certainly not ME. And I didn't really feel any wave of disapproval coming from the audience, either. No, it's Lydia R. Diamond who's judging Harriet Jacobs, because she fails as a perfect vessel for the playwright's ideology. She's actually putting the victims of slavery on trial. In a word, yuck.

  8. Hi again, Thomas. I'm glad that you've now taken the time to provide some explanation of your opinion of the play and the playwright -- although I still find terms such as "bad art" and "agitprop" to be vague and reactionary, rather than thoughtfully critical. In any case, our opinions on the material clearly differ, and we can, as they say, agree to (strongly) disagree.

    In closing, I would just like to mention again that I'm still troubled by your reference to Black actors being freed from "the ghetto of political correctness" when they have the opportunity to perform in works by Shakespeare and Shaw. By relegating contemporary Black plays (even those that we can agree are "riveting", like "In the Continuum"), to "the ghetto" and holding up classic and canonical texts as an alternative, you are ignoring the possibility that those classic texts do not speak to everyone and do not tell everyone's story, and you are promoting a troubling -- yet persistent -- cultural hierarchy. It is precisely this perspective that allows you to view the moment at the end of the first act of "Harriet Jacobs" as an apology rather than as a plea for understanding and compassion - and a request for our generosity, as audience members, and as members of American society reflecting on American history. The character says repeatedly that she would like to help us understand her story, a story that is almost beyond knowing and beyond understanding. I can see now that she was right to fear that we would not, could not understand.

  9. Well, to be honest, Isabella, you're quite right about me - I am, indeed, promoting a cultural hierarchy. The best plays (so far) have been by white guys, I'm afraid, and it's too bad that unfortunate historical fact troubles you for reasons unknown, but hey - that's just not my problem. And yes, these performers do seem stuck in a new "ghetto" of weak plays that are praised not for their quality but for their politics (the metaphor was intended to sting). I feel that if we're ever going to get a great play out of Lydia Diamond, for instance, we have to pressure her to abandon the obvious over-determination of her current politics (even if we agree with them). As for your weird attempt to justify that unpleasant moment in Harriet Jacobs - I hope that someday you'll realize that what you responded to in Diamond's play was its ideology, not its artistry.