Monday, January 12, 2009

The Emperor Jones

I'm not a talkback kind of guy. I'm really not. For many of the reasons that came up recently over at Parabasis, I just can't stand the things. I love discussion, but I hate Q & A, and the talkback so often seems to become the latter. But, seeing the heated conversation caused all week by The Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones coming to town, and also seeing as how I loved the shit out of it, I thought this might be a worthy one to stick around for. It most certainly was, and I would have gladly sat with this crowd and talked for three, four times as long. In trying to tie my reactions to the show, the thoughts amassed from the talkback, and conversations I have had with other friends who have seen the show since then, I keep coming back to one point which, not surprisingly, has a bit to do with the topic of my last post.

In the talkback I attended, it was agreed upon by a black woman and a white woman that this was a show for a white audience. While I don't necessarily think they meant the same thing by that, I would be willing to agree. However, I think that age is actually an even bigger demographic issue with this show than race. As far as I am concerned, this is a piece that best serves an audience under the age of 40. Why? With this piece, Wooster Group has fully embraced the gall to ask the questions that two or three generations of pre-middle age America have been too uncomfortable to ask for years. Along with the heavy cloud of tension that hung over the talkback, there was a beam of relief -- a sense of a slightly wary but also eager "So, we can talk about this openly now, right?" And, honestly, while the group that stayed behind was of mixed age, almost all of the participants who both addressed the topic and seemed to glean a sense of progress from it were young.

In various conversations with a number of friends, a consistent topic was the fact that the ire raised by Emperor Jones has very little to do with the actual tactics that Wooster employs so much as the emotional and historical baggage linked to them. But what we are now seeing is the very beginning of the transfer of power in America to those who, while still aware of racial tension, have no memory of a time when racism was a publicly accepted act. The new wave of America is post-Civil Rights era, a chunk of the population for many of which the idea of Capital R racism is antiquated, replaced by a combination of socioeconomic injustice and an overabundant level of awareness of Other.

And so, when issues like these come up, when there's a flare-up over blackface or the word nigger/nigga, the new wave is confusedly sympathetic, because yes, we understand that these are artifacts which at one time were used to carry a message of hate. But at the same time, it also seems horribly obvious to us that the white members of an audience singing along at a Kanye West show are not spurred on by hate. And that The Wooster Group is not in the business of making theatre with the goal of mocking an entire race. But we don't say anything out of a sense of propriety. We don't feel we can say, "Hey, everyone, when you get down to it, nigger is a word just like any other", because we know so vast many people to whom it is not just a word, to whom it is a vivid reminder of when it was considered acceptable to treat others as subhuman, and how do you tell someone with those memories to learn to deal? You don't; you just leave well enough alone.

But there must be a point in time at which we say: This is our society, too, and we are not going to continue the mystification of the tools of racism simply because it makes you remember the worse days. We acknowledge that we can say the word nigger without hate, that we can put black makeup on our faces without spite, we can speak in yet another written dialect without mockery (And before you speak to me about the untruths of minstrelsy, get a consensus on American Southern in Chicago and tell me that those are accurate. Dialect is almost always a lie at heart). We also acknowledge that there are still those who may use those tools in the name of oppression, but that is a problem that arises from those people, not those tools. And, bottom line, this is our society, too, and it is a different society than it was early last century. And hey, previous generations -- as we attempt to unfurl and investigate the problems still before us, we have no time to place our own hurdles through respectful ignorance. So, you know, learn to deal.

This is largely what I heard The Wooster Group saying. They also furthered it by showing that a compelling character can still be created in the midst of these tools. (And also, props to Chris Piatt for making a mention of this as 'hip-hop theater' so I didn't have to. It amazes me that the musicality of the minstrel speak isn't a more discussed topic. It's an interesting counterpoint to Ebonics, which I find to be one of the most musical dialects there is.)

And yet, as I prepare to hit "Publish Post", I worry that this is too antipathetic to the current American (lack of) racial discussion. That this is something I can't put on the Internet, because god dammit, it's the Internet, and once I do, there's no turning back. That it's not my place to say any of the above. But, you know what? This is my society, too. And if the long-term goal is to eliminate racism entirely, which I always assumed it was, we can't allow ourselves to be manhandled by the racist tactics of those who have come before. So you're gonna have to learn to deal with this post, too.


This weekend: On Friday, I'm continuing my O'Neill exploration with Companhia Triptal's Zona De Guerra (In The Zone) at the Goodman; on Saturday, New Leaf's Touch; and on Sunday, Shattered Globe's The Little Foxes. You're going to also have to learn to deal with that, pal!



snook said...

well spoke.

Boo said...

I hear this. And I think it's also important to acknowledge that we, as whites still have all the privilege and it doesn't have to be a burden, but it is a responsibility that we can't ignore.