Black death is haunting the theaters of New York this season
On and off Broadway, actors and audiences confront racist killings and the way they chip away at even the hardiest of souls
Dancer Rachel Watson-Jih was drifting off to sleep in her Brooklyn, New York, brownstone earlier this year when her husband became alarmed and shook her awake. Watson-Jih had begun flinching as she recalled the death of a woman she’d never met.
Kerrice Lewis, 23, was a Washington, D.C., woman who had been shot 15 times and stuffed into the trunk of a car, which was then set on fire while she was still alive. It was a few days after Christmas 2017.
Watson-Jih was responsible for interpreting Lewis’ death onstage for Eve’s Song, the play by Patricia Ione Lloyd that recently completed a run at the Public Theater.
Watson-Jih’s job, eight times a week, was to die, to twist and jerk, to keep speaking, as the sound of gunshot after gunshot rings through the theater while television news footage of the crime scene is projected onto the set. As the Spirit Woman, which is how Lewis’ ghost is identified in the play, Watson-Jih describes the scent of her own burning flesh. She says it smelled like pennies on fire.
This summer, before Eve’s Song even opened, Lewis’ death was affecting Watson-Jih.
“When we first started rehearsing for the play, I was having issues with separating the character and me, just even on my way home or coming home and just feeling like I had this weight on me,” Watson-Jih said. “The way I would cope with it was I would literally just come home and I would take a long shower, and I just rinse it off of me. Now, since we’ve been open and we’ve done so many shows, it’s definitely more of a conversation between her and I. Every show I’m like, ‘This is for you, Kerrice.’ ”
Black death is haunting the theaters of New York this season. It’s present in American Son on Broadway and off-Broadway in Travisville, Separate and Equal and the first two plays of Donja R. Love’s Love* Plays trilogy: Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies.
Two works in particular stand out: Eve’s Song and What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris. Eve’s Song is built around death: The centerpiece of its set is Ellis Wilson’s Funeral Procession (the same painting that hung in the Huxtable house on The Cosby Show). The Spirit Women, who represent the ghosts of black women who were murdered in real life (along with Lewis, Lloyd honors Kathryn Johnston and Amia Tyrae Berryman), float through a modern, suburban, middle-class black home where unpleasant truths keep pushing through the walls and floors as its matriarch desperately tries to camouflage them. By the play’s end, the Spirit Women will claim another member for their sorority.
“The struggles, injustices and killings and murders of black women, black girls and black trans women don’t receive the media attention, don’t receive the collective mourning that other deaths do,” Lloyd said. “We are a demographic that is easily pushed out of the consciousness when it’s uncomfortable to society at large.”
In response, Lloyd wrote a symbolic physicality into the Spirit Women, who, in rearranging the set for scene changes, push themselves from the margins of the stage to its center.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down, on the other hand, is wildly experimental — part group therapy, part nondenominational church service — and begins with a talking circle led by one of the actors.
Every evening, before the plot unfolds within a chalk circle that invokes both the police outline of a body and the Ring Shout, an actor has each member of the audience stand and introduce themselves. Marrying the childhood game Mother May I? with the realities of modern racism, audience members may be instructed to take one step forward if they have experienced racism or witnessed police violence. By design, there is no opportunity for anyone to ask, “Are you sure that was racially motivated?” The idea is to make the room gaslight-proof before the play even begins. Each performance honors a real person killed by police violence. The night I attended it was Jemel Roberson, a security guard slain by police after he subdued a shooting suspect at a bar in the suburbs of Chicago.
It is impossible to tell the stories of black life in America without also considering black death. These plays perform a vital reckoning with racial injustice and the various ways it turns lethal, and the minutes, hours and years spent processing those killings and the way they chip away at even the hardiest of souls. Taken cumulatively, however, a weight begins to amass with each new work. So why do they all seem to be up this particular season?
Well, because Black Lives Matter.
As names of the dead began to add up in real life — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, John Crawford — playwrights and theater companies responded with new work, such as Reginald Edmund’s collection Black Lives, Black Words: 32 Short Plays, which debuted in Chicago in 2015. The National Black Theatre commissioned six playwrights to write 10-minute works about Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The result was Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege. Eventually, those short works gave way to longer pieces. What to Send Up, which was first mounted in 2015, and Eve’s Song, developed at the 2016 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, both made their off-Broadway debuts this year.
The influence of Black Lives Matter on American playwrights is not a one-way street, however. The technological innovations of cable news and the internet have bridged the gap between protester and playwright.
Take the die-in, for instance. It is a serious part of the vocabulary of protest while also relying on an element of guerrilla theatricality. You could be window-shopping in a mall one minute and the next minute find yourself confronted with a sea of unmoving black bodies on the floor.
These latest works continue a tradition that goes back to the creation of the NAACP Drama Committee nearly 100 years ago, when W.E.B. Du Bois thought “edutainment” could be a useful tool in combating racism.
“You see again and again and again the killing of black protagonists as a repeated element and often a key element in American theater,” said Harvey Young, a theater critic and historian who now serves as dean of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. “Really it’s the last decade, because of Black Lives Matter, that you sort of see these very explicit treatments of [black people] being shot and killed by a police officer, usually, or someone within the community.”
Using theater as a form of racial reckoning has roots in the anti-lynching plays of the early 20th century, Young said, citing Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel (1920). Rachel was one of the earliest works written by an American black woman to be publicly staged. The title character starts out as a woman who adores children and who wants a brood of her own. But after she learns that her father and brother were lynched, she not only vows never to have children, she rebuffs the advances of her love interest as well.
“[Anti-lynching plays] were written to talk about the impact of lynching on black families and black communities, and those social dramas were printed in places like The Crisis magazine,” Young said. “Church groups would read those plays aloud, families would gather and read those plays, and everyone would play a role. But it was always a case of the violence occurred offstage. So you were dealing with the legacy and also the trauma of that person who was killed and murdered elsewhere and how that has a long-lasting impact upon your life and your family and changes involved in the community.”
This conversation resurfaces in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1964), in the works of Anna Deavere Smith and in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play (1993).
The America Play is about a black gravedigger identified as the Foundling Father. He makes his money by impersonating Abraham Lincoln and charging a penny to those who wish to re-enact the murderous plot of John Wilkes Booth. To the Foundling Father, who admires Lincoln, it’s an honorable profession, even more so than grave-digging.
The play highlights the overall cheapness of black life. It’s also interrogating what it means to be a black actor who makes his living conjuring dramatic death. When Parks revisited the idea of a Lincoln impersonator in Topdog/Underdog (2001), Lincoln is perfectly happy to get paid to put on whiteface and die repeatedly. He’s miffed that he gets compensated less for doing the job than the white impersonator who preceded him.
“It’s not always talking about repeated trauma,” Parks said. “That is one of the aspects, but it’s not the only thing. We tend to, especially in difficult times, lump everything. Everything black is a signifier of badness and difficulty and horror and shame and sadness. But there’s also a lot of joy and courage and strength and beauty too.”
While new playwrights work to portray the horror of black death, they also have to consider the toll it takes on actors and on the audience.
While Fireflies opens and closes with racially motivated murders, and the specter of lynching looms over Sugar in Our Wounds, the audience never sees the actual acts.
“I make sure to do this ’cause I don’t want to sensationalize,” said Love, who was motivated by the deaths of Sterling and Philando Castile to write the Love* Plays trilogy. “I don’t want to exploit black death, but it is there. And so I make sure that we never see the deaths happening onstage. …
“As black folk, it feels like we’re indoctrinated. We see death so much, and it feels like it’s this constant presence that’s always there.”
What to Send Up When It Goes Down uses nine characters who are sometimes in conversation with each other, and sometimes not, to illustrate the accumulated frustrations of everything from police shootings to workaday microaggressions.
Harris acknowledges that she is serving a bifurcated audience of those who experience racism and those who are the beneficiaries of living in a racist society. Like Parks, she uses humor to communicate that black life is upheld by a complicated structure of hokum, mettle and spirituality that somehow keeps the whole multigenerational enterprise from collapsing in on itself with grief.
Before the audience sets foot in the performance space, everyone gathers in an antechamber that feels like a sanctuary to slain black people. The walls are covered with photographs of black people who were killed by police. Everyone is warned: This is not a work for those uncomfortable with black people speaking honestly and publicly about racism.
“I wanted to de-center white people as much as possible,” Harris explained recently over breakfast in Brooklyn. “I understand that in order to stay alive, we have to always keep our eyes on how white folks are doing, so I wanted to make a space where we didn’t have to do that. We let them know upfront, this is what it is. You’re allowed to be here, we are welcoming you into our house, but this is for us. And that seemed really important to the ritual.”
Part of that consideration included a short workshop at the end of the play, when everyone except black members of the audience is asked to exit.
“I just added this portion,” Harris said. “I’m still trying to work out how to best care for us and how to let [black] people leave feeling held, because this piece just punches you left, right, up, down. So I definitely was thinking about care, but I didn’t want to shrink any of the hard stuff. I didn’t want it to be too tidy; I didn’t want to be afraid to go just ugly.”
Perhaps that’s all black people can ask for, really, as long as playwrights are reflecting the epidemic of black death that plagues our country: a modicum of care.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down can be seen at A.R.T./New York Theatres through Dec. 16.