Sunday 24 June 2018

Reflections on an Accidental US Race Relations Double Bill

Last Saturday I spent the day seeing two new works on the theme of American race relations – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's deconstruction of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (transferred to the NT's Dorfman from the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond) and Anna Deavere Smith's one woman show Notes from the Field, playing the Royal Court as part of LIFT 2018. The accidental comparison proved instructive.

Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon starts unpromisingly. An actor (Ken Nwosu) playing the playwright comes on and proceeds to detail his problems in writing the play. While the author does have a fresh angle on this (the particular challenges of being, or trying to be, a black playwright) this didn't finally justify the reuse of what is, as far as I'm concerned, an over familiar and ineffective device – that is the device of worrying to the audience about how to start the play (most recently in evidence at the start of The Inheritance). Why contemporary playwrights so often show this aversion to just getting on and telling the story escapes me. 

The rest of the show, broadly speaking, maintains this dichotomy between staging sections of Boucicault's original work, and commenting, mocking and generally playing around with it. In particular, Jacobs-Jenkins makes overt commentary on the practice of white actors blacking up, with jibes at a contemporary theatre which still doesn't give non-white performers their due and tends to have an overly white audience. I didn't find the treatment of blacking/whiting/reding up nearly as powerful as the parallel usage in Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys. I think Jacobs-Jenkins undermines the potential power of the device by so overtly showing the mechanics behind it (this also applies to other aspects of the play). It's linked to a general tendency too often to tell us, rather than show us – how much more powerful would it have been to suddenly make a white audience aware of how white it is, as opposed to the throwaway overt comment about it near the start.

The related problem is the regular interruptions and undermining of Boucicault's text. There are some really strong moments – the best in the form of Celeste Dodwell's Dora – who takes the archetypal Southern belle and turns her increasingly deranged while at the same time, in one section swamped by the increasing mayhem around her, contriving to show that she still has a heart – the show could have done even more here. She's also blessed with the funniest idea in the whole piece when asked to play a love scene on roller skates – I can't help feeling there's a market here for a comic version of Gone with the Wind. But other interjections are less successful. Jacobs-Jenkins affects not to believe in the way Boucicault uses the then new technology of photography as a key plot device – but this, I think, showed a lack of faith in the ability of theatre to put the audience inside a different world. When I was first thinking about this it seemed at odds to me with the play's faith elsewhere in making us believe in what, at first sight, struck me as a much more problematic era in respect of representation of non-white characters. On further reflection I wonder if Jacobs-Jenkins's point may in fact be to say that we are much closer to that earlier time than we think. But in both cases there is an underlying lack of faith (linked to that tendency to tell rather than show) in the audiences' ability to recognise and achieve some understanding of either differences or similarities between that time and our own without having them directly spelt out. 

The climactic scene in Act 4 is also a problem. I had no idea that you could create a small swimming pool on the Dorfman stage, and that, combined with the eventual fire effect is one of the most impressive technical feats I've seen for some time. But the impact is undermined by the length of time the show takes to build it up – first they have to remove the floor, then virtually every line in the scene is interrupted for authorial commentary. Either this melodramatic scene is ridiculous  or it isn't – the play can't seem to decide and fails to effectively have it both ways. 

In addition to the shadow of The Scottsboro Boys there are some other ghosts. The slave auction is the one place where the doubling of parts is problematic, and despite having the audience in the round doesn't do as much as it could to make the viewer complicit. I was reminded of the recreation of such an auction in the number Molasses to Rum in 1776 the musical. Granted all the performers in the only version I've seen were white, but certainly in that film version the effect has a far more visceral power than the scene here. The idea of having the slave women speak in a more contemporary idiom is an interesting one, but I was reminded of Hamilton which, while much more problematic in its treatment of race, achieves more naturalness – despite being sung – in its similar usages.

Finally, the problem with continually undercutting your main narrative is that it undermines suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in that narrative. If the cast keep mocking it, it's hard, or at least it was for this viewer, to care enough.

Overall, despite a strong ensemble – all of whom work hard, many of them playing multiple parts – I came away feeling it was an unsatisfactory piece. I also had the slight feeling that, while it did succeed in criticising white stereotypes of black worlds in the end Jacobs-Jenkins partially replicates stereotypes of white theatre – that's to say An Octoroon shows that he can deconstruct a piece as (indeed often more) brilliantly than many white writers, but has some of the same problems they have in putting emotionally meaningful theatre in its place.

In advance I had, unwisely, believed the hype surrounding Anna Deavere Smith's return to London. Notes from the Field turned out to be an overlong, and, for me, increasingly irritating show. Firstly, I think it's worth noting we are on pretty familiar ground. Verbatim theatre, which has rarely convinced me, has been a regular recent feature on the London stage. Likewise one-sided political lecturing. Yes the subject matter of this lecture, the plight of African Americans in the US criminal justice system, is newer theatre-wise (though in fact the play is more scattershot in content than this) but at least as far as I was concerned as a regular reader of the liberal and left-wing American press I learnt little new from these monologues. At the same time Smith rejected almost all of what is most powerful in theatre. 

As already noted the show is structured as a series of monologues based largely on interviews conducted by Smith. In other words, the subjects and what we hear them say are all filtered through her. If the perspective was broader this might have mattered less. But the selectivity became, for me, more and more of an issue as the evening went on. Virtually all the voices here (with the exception of a Finnish teacher who, so far as I could see, appeared to have been included to provide a cheap comedy European) are of African Americans who have suffered, or observed suffering in this system. Presumably the justification for this, though Smith offers none in the performance or in the scanty program, is the standard marginalisation of these voices. If Smith's point were simply to let them be heard the content and structural choices would be more justified. But this is not Smith's point I think. The show wants, it seems to me, to be taken as a meaningful exploration of the crisis of American race relations and a rallying call for what our reaction should be. But, the limited perspective provided hinders really meaningful exploration of the crisis – because we are only presented with one side's voices – this is not to legitimate the behavior or the racist views of the other side but to argue that reconciliation will not come by silencing them. This choice is also unchallenging of the audience despite the horrors related. I suspect the bulk of the audience – even whiter in the Court stalls than at the Dorfman – already agrees that everything being described is awful – they are not forced to hear perspectives with which they might disagree. These two aspects taken together undermine, I think, the forced reconciliation of the conclusion. 

I hesitate to advance the why didn't you write this other play argument, but I think in this case the ultimate agenda of the piece justifies asking the question. Just take a counter possibility for a moment. Suppose Smith had constructed an, on the surface, more traditional play about the black schoolgirl thrown from her classroom chair to the floor by the white part time football coach/security guard. Suppose that the play had forced the imagined versions of those two characters to confront one another. I suspect it would have made for much more uncomfortable viewing but precisely because those positions are rarely forced into genuine dialogue on public platforms it might have brought more light to the story than the approach here does. 

To return to the approach Smith has chosen, in a film documentary, to take the form this really resembles, it might have been less irritating. In the theatre, naturally set up to allow for the confrontation of individuals with differing perspectives, it feels like a real missed opportunity. Time and again the stories Smith has selected feature prominent figures whose perspective on their actions I wanted to hear. Yes, I admit, they were usually white – the football coach who pulls the student out of her chair, the white environmental activist who reportedly says “if you want to taser her [his black colleague] you'll have to taser me”, the former Klansman who comes to Freedom Ride veteran Congressman John Lewis's office to ask forgiveness. Did Smith try to interview any of these people? We aren't told. But unless you're willing to listen to those people try to explain why they did what they did, as much as you are willing to listen to and try and empathise with the pain of those who are suffering, any reconciliation or conjuring of common humanity you may try for is likely to be built on sand. Is it sufficient to argue that those white voices get enough airtime as it is? I'm not sure. If your aim is simply to get those black voices heard, then perhaps it is. But, as already noted, Smith's aim is rather larger than this. I will further say it didn't help for me that the attempted reconciliation is built on audience participation – in this case a communal rendition of Amazing Grace. I've said this before, but you have to earn my participation in such a scenario – Smith did not. 

As an actress I'm also not convinced on this showing that Smith is in that top rank who can sustain a one woman show of this kind (Audra McDonald's performance in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, for example, was in another league). She didn't consistently compel my attention and I didn't think that 17 distinct people emerged over the course of the evening. I'd also have liked to see some original footage for comparison in the case of the Finnish teacher. Smith was at her best, for me, when performing the minister, Jamal Harrison Bryant, at Freddie Gray's funeral, and Congressman Lewis – the two naturally public performers among the subjects. 

The result of sitting through Notes from the Field was to increase my appreciation for what An Octoroon is trying to do. While it is mocking of the genre, it hasn't thrown out nearly as much as Smith has done. It's also much braver in the variety of perspectives permitted on stage, as a result of which it's far more thought provoking about the US's deeply problematic race relations. The last scene of An Octoroon, as two slaves sold on face an uncertain future goes on too long, but reflecting on it now it seems to me it still managed to speak more powerfully, through these two fictional characters, about the issues with which both pieces are concerned than most of Smith's channelled interviewees.

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