Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

things in the dark

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Controversy continues to simmer over the selection of white, French actor, Gérard Depardieu, to portray the French literary lion Alexandre Dumas, who was three-quarters black. The film, entitled “L’Autre Dumas” (The Other Dumas), is accused of playing fast and loose with opportunity, to further distance truth from fact.

In all of the commentary about the subject, there is agreement that French film culture continues in its unwillingness to celebrate the depth of ethnic diversity in its history or national identity, and seems determined to divert any opportunity to do so by remaining aloof from engaging in the reasons which perpetuate this by simply deflecting the debate into one of ‘artistic license’.

Though France may dilute accurate portrayals of historic characters, a different shiver is onstage in American theater.

In The Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel musical is made of the event of the nine black teenagers, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train bound for Memphis, and tried in an Alabama court before a white judge and all white jury. The subsequent series of trials, convictions, retrials and reversals, provoked two unprecedented Supreme Court decisions, and put fuel to the Civil Rights Movement.

..what resonates for me, in these two artistic endeavors, is the heat which their presentations are generating. Both have resulted in vigorous social commentary, striving to raise issues of racism and ‘tampering with history’ into the cultural mainstream for debate. Both endeavors have taken a particular artistic license in presenting their subject. Both, seemingly, to sensationalist effect.

..but in either case, discourse is the outcome. And to me, that is a great thing.

History is stubbled with wrongs, racial, political, religious, that remain in obscurity, by the silence that allowed them to be subsumed. the dark of a theatre, in the glare and wash from screen or stage, a presentation can unfasten more than outrage though; it can release memory, reconnecting us to silenced instances of Witness.

While in New York last week I spent some time with my theatre godmother, Billie Allen. One afternoon we sat at her dining room table, which was ladened with correspondence, project outlines and Playbill programs. And as the subject of Kander & Ebb’s piece came into our conversation, Billie found expression for something, she later admitted, never having consciously touched before.

“ else could you do such a subject, but as a minstrel show? It’s too horrible a truth to sit through naturally.”

Her voice changed at that, and words just came of their own..

“…I lived in Richmond Virginia in the time of that trial. There were all kinds of intellectual and important African-Americans coming through town. Lawyers, journalists, thinkers. It was all anyone was speaking about. It was at that time that I stopped looking at white people. I looked at them, but I never really ever, from that time, looked at them, because what that time taught me was that, if you look the wrong way at a white person, you were dead. From that moment in time I worried, about my mother, about my brother, about everyone I loved, looking at a white person, and disappearing. Because it was a fact. You would disappear.

I finally overcame myself, and forced myself to look at white people, to see them, and look directly at them, but it struck me, when I sat in that theater, and I started staring at a minstrel show depicting that time, and that story, that a piece of me still is haunted by that moment, and those days in Richmond. I didn’t realize that until I found my whole body reacting to what it was I was watching onstage –my chest went tight, my heart started pounding, my throat closed, I wanted to flee. I felt as if I’d start gasping for air at any moment. And when that happened to me, that’s when I suddenly remembered, that I’d stopped looking at white people for a time. For a great long time. And felt that fear, as if I could be made to fear looking at them again. But I don’t fear that. I just remember what it was like to.”

Of course it is important to give silence up. It is also important to consider that the silence may be drawn from an acutely personal place in each of us, and charged with unexpected energy and consequence.


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