Tuesday, December 6, 2016


I highly recommend seeing “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward at Theatre 80 Saint Marks on 80 Saint Marks Place in Manhattan before it closes this Sunday, December 11th, 2016.  It plays every night at This is an amazing play with a message that is incredibly timely and incredibly relevant to the incoming Trump administration.  This play is set in a town in the United States and the premise of this play is that all Black people are absent, and the remaining white people are in a state of disarray.   

This play is a satire but I think it is a remarkably relevant satire that shows how the U.S. economy is absolutely dependent on the labor and presence of Black people.  In Ward’s notes of this play, he writes: “the play is conceived for performance by a Black cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white face.”  When I was in the audience, I had a unique experience of laughing at more jokes than those of white audience members.  It was definitely a very interesting experience.  I walked in about fifteen minutes into the show to see the scene with Mary (China L. Colston) and John (Daniel Carlton) and a yelling baby.  They talked about their maid Lula however, like all Black individuals in this town, Lula is absent.  One gets the impression hearing the exchange between Mary and John that their entire sense of comfort and livelihood depends on Lula.  This reminds me of the ways that president-elect Donald Trump will depend on the expertise of the staff of the previous administration in order to maintain some level of respect for the United States as a nation that is run on an economy based on a finite resource.  

 The mayor (Charles Weldon) is the pulse of the town and scrambles to respond to the tragedy of absent Black people.  He first calls the hospital then resolves to look in prison for the Nigras that have disappeared: “then Nigras in jail are the most important Nigras we got!”  This recalls Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow where she describes the mass incarceration industry that also depends on creating political prisoners that essentially threaten the status quo.  For Ward to write the Mayor’s line saying that Nigras in jail “are most important,” means that these are the Nigras who are influential and could potentially spread information to challenge the status quo.  Supporters of the Trump administration such as Charlie Kirk since Trump’s election has started ProfessorWatch, intended to monitor and list professors who are accused arbitrarily of “advancing leftist propaganda.”  The Mayor’s line here also recalls Blacks who were persecuted by McCarthyism including Ward himself who, along with Lorraine Hansberry, was a member of the Progressive Party.  “Day of Absence” is a low key critique of not only of Southern conservatism.  No character represents this Southern conservatism more than his Clubwoman character (played memorably by Cecelia Antoinette) who said: “it has always been pure, delicate, lily-white images of Dixie femininity which provided backbone, inspiration and ideology for our male warriors in their defense against the on-rushing Black horde.  If our gallant men are drained of this worship and idolatry—God knows! The cause won’t be worth a Confederate nickel!” 

                                                             (with Cecelia Antoinette)
 This is basically the beliefs of the alt-right movement and the Neo-Nazi voices that we are hearing more often since Trump’s election.  This play is not only a tacit critique of how U.S. society endorses Neo-Nazi beliefs; this play is also a critique of white liberal philanthropy.  No character seems to point out Ward’s obvious critique of philanthropy better than his Mrs. Aide character (Kim Weston-Moran).  She tells Ward’s reporter character that “disruptions of our pilot projects among Nigras saddles our white community with extreme hardship…We place them as maids, cooks, butlers, and breast-feeders, cesspool-diggers, wash-basin maintainters, shoe-shine boys, and so on—mostly on a volunteer self-work basis.”  The reporter then asks: “hired at prevailing salaried rates, of course?”  Mrs. Aide replies “God forbid!  Money is unimportant.  Would only make ‘em worse.  Our main goal is to improve their ethical behavior.”  Mrs. Aide is describing the function of the cyclical rise and crash pattern of the U.S. economy in funding programs for inner city youth then suddenly stopping that funding due to dramatic economic recessions.  Ward’s play shows how budget cuts that affect communities of color the hardest are deliberately created an arbitrary choice by those who, as James Baldwin, “believe that they are white.”  Most provocative to me however was the character of Pious (played INCREDIBLY UNFORGETTABLE by Count Stovall who performed work of my mentor Leslie Lee), who is the clergy representative of this white town who insisted that their absence is a work of Hoodoo meant to confound deliberately white people and disobey God.  

                                                            (with Count Stovall)
 I was amazed as to how Douglas Turner Ward wrote this character.  This character’s theology explains the difference between a theology of Pat Robertson and a Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Ward’s Pious would definitely side with a Pat Robertson.  

 The most dramatic part of this satire was when the Mayor pleads with the Blacks to return to their servant status to this U.S. town by showing the servant paraphernalia the Blacks used: “Look, George! I brought he rag you wax the car wit’…Don’t this bring back memories, George, of all the days you spent shining that automobile to shimmering perfection…And you, MANDY!...Here’s the waste basket you didn’t dump this morning, I saved it just for you!”   I laughed so hard at this line.  This is a phenomenal production that I highly highly recommend seeing.  I was honored to learn from veterans of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in a talkback immediately following the show that included NEC veterans like David Downing who played the Wizard in this play, whom Woodie King Jr. in the audience said he was a fan of; and Allie Woods who played the Mayor’s assistant in Jackson. 

NEC veteran Phylicia Rashad credited Allie Woods with inviting her to the NEC’s Monday Night Series which began her memorable stage and television career.   

                                                              (me and Allie Woods)
In the talkback, Allie Woods said that when the NEC production of “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” he was in toured in England, members of the audience saluted Hitler, and the cast did not feel particularly protected by the London police.I appreciated Theatre 80 Saint Marks hosting the NEC production’s 50th Anniversary Season and the director of this theater saying that Ward’s friendship with lawyer Arthur Kinoy who defended Bobby Seale and Huey Newton when they were arrested in 1968.  This production is a A MUST SEE IN NEW YORK CITY BEFORE IT CLOSES SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11TH.  –RF.    


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Celebrating Marlon James and "the Unreliable Narrator"


On Marlon James’ 46th birthday today, I celebrate his artistic expressions in the form of three novels and especially his 64th Annual Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture that he gave at Howard University on Tuesday, April 12th this year.  I learned so much from this lecture that I had to take notes and put them in the context of his important anticolonial messages of his three novels and the critical responses to them.   

His lecture was intended for the students but taught so much to me as a artist.  One of the guiding themes of this lecture for me was his point that he “became obsessed with the unreliable narrator.”  

Unreliable narrators exist ad nauseum in our society run by white supremacist capitalists.  They are all around us, and the unreliable narrators in Marlon’s novels should help us to scrutinize the unreliable narrators in the mainstream media, and the histories that justify colonialism and neocolonialism.  This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up most profoundly for me in Marlon’s second and third novels.  

It shows up in the second novel The Book of Night Women because the main narrator Lilith, is a character who, like I messaged Marlon James, desperately wants to integrate and assimilate in a colonial society.  Lilith is extraordinarily unreliable in terms of the values she embraces and rejects.  She embraces the domestic life of a wife of Robert Quinn, an overseer, however she rejects the values that Homer tries to teach her when Homer tries to recruit her to join a rebellion on a Jamaican plantation that is in solidarity with the Haitian revolution.  

When I told Marlon James in person that I had a huge problem with the ways that Lilith identified with the values of a plantation overseer, he said that he had to be true to her, and that in the process of being true to Lilith, he had to write her the way she expressed herself, which was, vying for a marriage to Robert Quinn.  My own desires for Lilith to follow Homer was related to my own desires to see a younger generation resist the colonial norms of U.S. hegemony, especially in terms of identifying with police officers and corporate friendly attorneys like Olivia Pope rather than journalists like Marcus Garvey and Mumia-Abu Jamal. 

This second novel The Book of Night Women has also produced some very profound literary criticism.  I think some of the best literary criticism of this novel has been written by Valerie Orlando and Carol Bailey.  Orlando wrote in an article called “Thiefing Sugar From the Island Beneath the Sea” that “even white women…are corrupted and manipulated by the barbarity of an enslaved environment.  As in Allende’s Beneath the Sea and Jean Rhys’s earlier Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as well as Rochester’s demented Antillean wife in the attic depicted in Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, white women go insane from the hostility of the tropical island environment or they are manipulated and abused by white men, which, in turn, hardens them into cruel animals.”  

 Carol Bailey wrote about James’s Lilith that creates an intimacy with a sugar plantation overseer character Robert Quinn in order to stay alive.  She speaks to the ways that ALL JAMAICANS perform on some level in a neocolonial economy in order to stay alive.  Nicole Dennis-Benn’s character in her debut novel "Here Comes The Sun" who works in a hotel also performs in a way similar to the way Lilith is performing.  

This theme of an “unreliable narrator” shows up in Marlon’s third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in his Papa-Lo character, who is a drug don that conducts a trial of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   However he proves himself unreliable when he refuses to put himself on trial and insists on trying to prosecute those who, unlike those with wealth, are unable to have the power to defend themselves.  He considers the audience that he’s talking to “decent people” and claims that as a drug don, he will "eradicate" drugs.

 James is very clear on showing the unreliability of his narrators.  When James spoke at the Burch lecture he said that we as Black writers have to come to terms with the culture that produced the art.  This explained his deep interest in the fiction of Charles Dickens, novelist of Great Expectations.  Even though he praised Dickens’ novels as one that shaped his imagination, he also recognized Dickens as a man who supported the English governor’s murder of those in the Morant Bay Rebellion in the 1860s.  He also mentioned other books “that made me write books” including books by Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, and The North China Love by Marguerite Duras.  Books that also made him write books include Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, which Nadia Ellis mentioned in her review of A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I honestly had trouble with developing an interest in some of these novelists with such a fixed Western worldview, James’s lecture still encouraged me to read them because we should pretend that their art is their BEST self.  

 The same culture that produced their art, their novel is the same culture that produced the man.  James shared an obvious fascination with many European writers that influenced him, and I couldn’t help but take notice.   

James’s read of Toni Morrison’s Sula I found very interesting.  He said the biggest epiphany he ever had was the last scene in this novel when Nel asks Sula, on her deathbed after she lived a full life, “what do you have to show for it?”  Sula replied “Show?  To Whom?”  James said that reading this part made him fall out of his chair.  James was speaking to the freedom that Sula personified, in not having to live for anybody else but herself.  I thought that that freedom was also liberating.  I think the way that Kokovah Zauditu-Selassie and Susan Neal Mayberry analyze Sula is very interesting to me.   

The lesson James was pointing to in Sula, was her rejection of domestic norms that defied the idea of her “showing” her life or norms of materialism to any other person.   This is the freedom that apparently inspired Marlon’s fiction. 

I am grateful for Marlon James’ fiction and I highly encourage everyone to take a closer look at his work.  I was most grateful for his Burch Lecture at Howard on April 12, 2016. 

This lecture was sponsored by the Department of English at Howard University chaired by Dr. Dana Williams, and run by the Caribbean Studies Program directed by Dr. Curdella Forbes.  And I especially thank Professor Marlon James for sharing his wisdom and experience with the Howard community.  -RF.