‘The Oath’ and two new plays question the white liberal fantasy that black women will save us all
In three works, women weigh pursuing freedom against losing their families
What does it mean to see the world, or at least your little corner of it, threatening to implode and figure out how to carry on living in it? What’s it like to agree a revolution is needed while harboring ambivalence about whether to join it?
Three recent works — The Oath, a Hollywood movie, and two off-Broadway plays, Travisville and Black Light — reveal the calculations black women are forced to make during times of social upheaval.
In The Oath, which recently expanded into wide theatrical release, Tiffany Haddish stars as Kai, a suburban California wife raising a biracial daughter with her political news-junkie husband Chris, played by writer-director Ike Barinholtz. The two have witnessed a deeply divided country devolve into chaos as civil liberties are eroded. At the beginning of the movie, the two watch horrified as an enraged white man stops at an intersection to slash the tires of the driver in front of them while yelling a homosexual epithet. Chris wants to stand up to the guy. But with their daughter in the back seat, Kai just wants to get away from a bully emboldened by an authoritarian president who’s learned all the wrong lessons from McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the intrusions of the Patriot Act.
The president has asked every citizen to sign an oath swearing loyalty to him — not the Constitution, him — in return for a tax credit. He’s created the Citizens Protection Unit, a division of the Department of Homeland Security that investigates those who haven’t signed the oath. CPU is also suspected of disappearing dissidents. The bulk of the movie takes place as two armed CPU agents descend on Chris and Kai’s home as they’re hosting Chris’ family for Thanksgiving and the evening takes a violent turn. Kai has no interest in arguing with Chris’ conservative relatives, nor discussing politics at all. Her entire focus is on keeping their daughter safe.
In Travisville, playwright William Jackson Harper (better known for playing Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place) imagines a small Texas town that’s divided over questions of race and gentrification after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The town’s mayor and city council are all white. The formal institution of black power is the all-male Ministers’ Alliance, which is poised to sell the mayor’s plan for redevelopment, which would push the town’s black residents into a flood-prone area while offering them pennies for their homes. Appeasement, the ministers figure, is better than death or dismemberment.
But some of the residents are energized by the righteous passion of a young CORE worker named Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best) into testing whether this newfangled law will actually protect them. But as they begin to turn away from the Ministers’ Alliance and toward Zeke, one woman, Georgia Dawson (Lynnette R. Freeman), is more cautious. She wants to hold out for a better deal, but she also wants to ensure the economic and physical safety of her family. When she takes too long to come to what they see as the right decision, the town’s white residents hang Georgia’s children in effigy in the Dawsons’ front yard. And when that doesn’t produce the desired outcome, the town terrorists return, shooting her husband Orthell (Shawn Randall) and sending him into a coma.
Georgia is left wondering whether sticking to her principles and standing up for black people will result in her children growing up without a father. She wearily contemplates whether to accept an offer twice the sum of the initial one while Orthell is hospitalized and unconscious.
“You still got to eat, you still got to have a place to live, you still got to get up in the morning. I think Zeke is a young guy. Zeke is 23. He doesn’t have family. He doesn’t have a significant other that he cares for, necessarily. He is pure purpose, and she is a woman with a job and children and a family. It’s like, she is just in a very different place,” Harper told me recently. “I just can’t help but think that there were people during this time that were seeing the process of social change starting to happen and were like, ‘This is great. I totally see and understand this, but in the end, I still got to make rent and I still have to make sure that my kids are fed.’ ”
The play ends without letting the audience know of Georgia’s ultimate decision. It is not especially satisfying, but it is understandable and unsettling.
Black Light is a cabaret show created by and starring Daniel Alexander Jones as a woman named Jomama Jones. Jomama exists in the present, but she regales her audience with stories about coming of age up North while harboring middle school crushes on Prince and spending her summers in the South with her great-aunt Cleotha.
Aunt Cleotha is not a warm or open woman. She has one good arm, which she does not hesitate to use to serve up Jomama’s favorite pet chicken when the local reverend comes over for dinner. Aunt Cleotha looms as a fearsome, mysterious pragmatist whom Jomama does not like and with whom she struggles to forge a connection. All she knows is that Aunt Cleotha sleeps till noon and hates to be disturbed. It’s not until Jomama learns how Aunt Cleotha lost her arm that she understands why she’s so guarded. It’s because when Aunt Cleotha’s brother Reggie returned home as a World War I veteran, whites in the town took offense to him walking around in his uniform: too uppity.
To teach Reggie a lesson, a group of white men, armed with guns and a German shepherd, rode on the family’s house. When Cleotha refused to fetch her brother, the men set the dog on Cleotha and she lost her arm. Then they dragged Reggie away and lynched him. Ever since, Cleotha has kept guard on the porch with a shotgun.
She rolled down her sleeve and fastened it.
And we sat together in silence for some time.
Then, you know, I couldn’t help myself, precocious Northern child. I
said, Aunt Cleotha, wasn’t that the Nineteen-teens? Why you got
the shotgun now?
They’re out there moving still.
I stay vigilant.
So, y’all can sleep.
You know, Aunt Cleotha, it’s not really dark at all.
No, baby, this is what I call, Black Light.
And so, on the very last night, of my very last trip down South, I sat
next to Aunt Cleotha.
Waiting for the dawn.
Learning how to see in the dark.
By unveiling the source of Aunt Cleotha’s physical and psychological wounds, Jones disabuses his audience of the idea that voting American black women are a modern iteration of Delacroix’s Liberty. Instead, he provides vital context for why it’s dangerous to think that way. In the course of romanticizing revolution, it’s too easy to paint over real loss that’s often the price of freedom.
“I have always turned to the intellectual work, the creative work, the philosophical work of black women across every class in terms of different regions of this country as leaders,” Jones said in an interview. “I find that it is imperative, at this particular moment in our culture’s history with so much discord, to listen to the voices of black women writers, public intellectuals, everyday folk.”
The Oath is the least effective of these three works because Barinholtz doesn’t explain why Kai is so resistant to being drawn into Chris’ political debates. In one limp interaction, Chris questions why a black woman wouldn’t be more agitated about the fact that the country is turning into a police state. Kai balks and reiterates her concern for keeping their child safe. In fact, when she’s finally fully drawn into Chris’ political mishegoss, it’s because a CPU officer threatens her kid. (I reached out to Haddish’s representatives to get her thoughts on the character, and through them she declined to comment.)
Because The Oath is a satire about white liberalism versus white conservatism, there’s a soft implication that perhaps Chris married this black woman to troll his parents and reinforce his own woke bona fides. It’s difficult to be sure, because when it fails to fully consider Kai’s internal reasoning about her life and relationships, The Oath is no longer satirizing a certain kind of white liberal onanism. It’s actively engaging in it.
Still, Kai’s existence on screen, along with Aunt Cleotha and Georgia Dawson onstage, and their collective ambivalence toward radicalism are noteworthy, especially when considering how black women are viewed in the liberal imagination as saviors of the republic.
Recently, Reggie Ugwu of The New York Times published an examination of five films (Black Panther, The Hate U Give, Blindspotting, Monsters and Men and BlacKkKlansman). He argued that these films provide a type of wish fulfillment — they all include scenes that feel good but aren’t necessarily realistic. They provide a magical reality in which black people can challenge a white supremacist power structure head-on, win and live to tell about it without lingering wounds.
Characters like Kai, Georgia and Aunt Cleotha do the opposite. They complicate the idea of black women as altruistic, revolutionary seraphim fueled by some idealistic pursuit of liberty. These women are simply trying to make the best of a bad set of options and protect their families.
“I think [Jomama] presents us with questions, and I think she’s inviting people to step into their own responsibility for the moment that we’re in,” Jones told me. “I think that as part of the project of survival and the project of resistance, the work of putting brilliant insight into the world has fallen onto the backs of people who are then asked also to provide comfort and to provide solace and to provide advice and all of these sorts of things.”
Stories of those who survey their surroundings and make decisions based on the likelihood that those decisions will keep them alive are less glittery. They can be deeply depressing. That cost-benefit analysis — does one stand for one’s principles and risk getting lynched, firebombed or raped, or does one go along to get along and fight another day? — carries a cost too. Those internal struggles can be challenging to communicate, but it doesn’t make them less real.
“I think more people are probably in Georgia Dawson’s boat than are in Zeke’s boat in real life,” Harper said. “They may agree, they may have feelings, they may want certain things to happen, but in the end, they got to live their life. Day to day it’s always present. I just feel like I couldn’t tell the story in any truthful way without having a committed pragmatist in the story, that point of view.”