Sunday, December 18, 2011
Stick Fly is a play about an African American family’s upper class stability. Its biggest drama is concerned with how that stability is shattered by a member of that family who comes to reject the norms on which that stability is based. It is set on the Martha’s Vineyard cottage of the Levay family in 2005. The Broadway version omits the original prologue which has us meeting Kent Levay, the artistically-inclined-aspiring-novelist-son of the family (played by Dulé Hill). In this prologue he comes to a funeral of the famed intellectual James Bradley Scott and meets his daughter Taylor Bradley Scott (played brilliantly by Tracie Thoms). He shares how impressed he is with her father’s work but she is unimpressed. What seems to attract Taylor to Kent is his willingness to listen to her, which we see throughout the play is a need for Taylor. They hit it off and in the next scene where the Broadway version begins, Kent hits it off with Taylor and brings her home. Taylor is in awe of the Levay household. Kent is hoping that his mom, Michelle, will like Taylor and Taylor is hoping likewise. A lot of her energy throughout this play is spent trying desperately to impress the Levay family and “fit in” so to speak. She admires a Romare Bearden painting in the living room. Taylor is a character, like many of us, who is impressed and arguably altered by material items. She comes across a family picture of Kent’s Great-Great-grandfather Whitcomb, “the Great Sea Captain.” Kent tells Taylor he was a shipper, and when Taylor asks “of what,” he says:
“we don’t talk about that. Anyway he saved the mayor’s son from a boating accident. As a reward, the mayor gave him this land on which he built this house, making the Whitcombs the first Blacks to own land anywhere on the Vineyard.”
To this Taylor replies in admiration: “its beautiful.” As Kent and Taylor get to know each other more on the living room couch, we see a young woman enter the kitchen from stage right with groceries to put away and laundry to fold. Kent enters the kitchen and hugs her, whom we come to know as Cheryl (played beautifully by Condola Rashad), daughter of the Levay’s maid, Ellie, who is working in her mother’s place for some reason this weekend. Kent’s older brother Flip (played by Mekhi Phifer) enters the living room and recognizes Taylor, and we see right away that they both recognize and are shocked to see each other for some reason. Taylor seems confused about who Cheryl is, and when Cheryl introduces herself and says “I’m working for the Levays,” Taylor replies: “Oh…you’re the maid” and produces, according to stage directions, a moment of “awkward silence.” This sets up a confrontational relationship between Taylor and Cheryl. Cheryl quickly despises the way that Taylor types her. Taylor is trying to understand the upper class African American family that she is trying to impress and wants to know everybody in this family. By typing Cheryl as “the maid,” Taylor immediately distances Cheryl from the Levay family; Taylor acknowledges the patriarchal structure that she wants to fit into. Cheryl resents this categorization because she wants to be seen more as a human being rather than an occupation. Taylor in this line seems to project her insecurities onto Cheryl, and Cheryl’s words and actions immediately resist this. Cheryl is a character who assumes her humanity and demands that others, like Taylor, see it. She is almost a manifestation of the invisible answer to Taylor’s question to Kent of “what” great great grandfather Whitcomb shipped. We can probably infer that Whitcomb shipped slaves and that his family’s wealth that Kent inherited came as a result of profiting from the slave trade. Lydia Diamond as a playwright seems to be subtly commenting on how upper class stability and prosperity of even affluent upper class Blacks is built on the shipping of enslaved human beings. Human beings that were essentially made invisible for the sake of commerce, and for the sake of the Whitcombs’ wealth and prosperity. Flip is a plastic surgeon and when Cheryl first sees him and asks him about his patients, the stage directions tell us Flip “pushes a couple of buttons on his new, sexy, status phone and starts to put the phone in his pocket.” Kent indulges in the phone and calls it “sweet” and “sexy.” Instead of answering Cheryl’s question about his patients, Flip addresses Kent’s admiration for his phone and shows that he is more interested in profiting from his occupation than in conversing about the humanity of those he works with. Both great great grandfather Whitcomb and Flip Levay men are not so much interested in challenging the colonial economic structure as they are in working within it. Cheryl again presses the humanity issue, this time not of Flip’s patients, but of Flip himself when she is serving the Levay sons drinks and snacks in the living room while they (Taylor, Kent and Flip) play the board game of Trivial Pursuit. Flip talks about how he was followed by a little blonde salesgirl in the Pottery Barn, and Cheryl (whom the stage directions tells us has an “intense and painful crush” on Flip) says to him: “you shouldn’t be harassed because you’re human.” Flip responds to her: “not just a person a well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled person” and seems to miss her point that regardless of how we looks, he should be treated as a human being. Cheryl logically retorts: “so they should follow around a guy who works for, say, the phone company, just not you?” Taylor interrupts so Flip does not directly answer, mainly because she wants Flip to play the game; she later says: “I like the game. You would too if you were invested in winning.” This line is a double entendre as it its referring not only to the literal game of Trivial Pursuit but also the figurative game of social “success” in Western society. The object of “the game” is to develop as much class status and wealth within the materialistic Western society as possible. And more than any other woman in the play, Taylor is most invested in winning a place of approval and acceptance in the Levay family. Kent, however, as the artistic thinker, responds to Taylor in a way that comments on the game and the larger Western society: “it’s trivia…Trivial Pursuit. The pursuit of things trivial.” While he did indulge in Flip’s cell phone and he does play a board game, Kent also understands in a deeper way, how trivial on some level all ambitions for “success” are, which explains his interest as a novelist. When Flip complains that he gets a harder Trivial Pursuit question than Kent, about which South Vietnamese president was assassinated by his generals in 1963, Dad (played awesomely by Ruben Santiago Hudson) enters the living room with the correct answer of Ngo Dinh Diem. He tries to get his point across about Diem however both Kent and Taylor cut him off as if to deny or once again silence the experience of those oppressed cultures in order to try and play “the game.” His point may have been that Diem was a U.S. puppet intended to suppress the revolution in Vietnam against the French. However Dad soon drops his train of thought on Diem when he sees Taylor and charms her. He lets her know of his familiarity with her father’s books, namely, The Bonds of Intellectual Freedom. Taylor tells Dad “the house is beautiful” and Dad turns his attention to Kent saying: “so you’re going to support your beautiful wife writing books now, I hear.” His exchanges to Kent include: “So son, you’re a very talented fiction writer for whom I paid to get a law degree, a business degree, and a master’s in sociology.” When Taylor tries to build Kent up before his dad by telling him that Kent just got a publisher, Dad asks “Random House? Dell?” Kent replies “small” and to that Dad replies “oh. Small…” Taylor sees how Dad insists on exposing the frailty of Kent and changes the conversation to her own pursuits, saying to Dad: “I’m doing a postdoc at Johns Hopkins. Entomology.” Hudson plays the disdain, towards Kent and his career choices, beautifully. He definitely portrays a father who makes a point to let anybody within listening distance know that he is disappointed in his son’s choices and believes he should change them. After the exchange which Taylor calls “intense,” she says to Kent: “you’re shrinking.” Dad later tells Flip in the kitchen, Kent’s older brother about Kent: “the boy’s a fuckup. Hey…I don’t set unreasonably high standards. But I’ve given you boys everything. There’s no need for floundering.” When Kent enters the kitchen and talks only to Dad, Dad tells him:
“its time to step up. You’re about to have a wife, God help you. Maybe start a family? You can’t be out there like you’ve been and trying to find yourself and what not. It’s not about you anymore. [Pulling out his Blackberry] I’ll help you. [scrolling through his address book] Figure out what you want to do with your life and get back to me…I’ll make some calls. But I’m not entertaining this mess about now I’m a writer…Damn boy…man up. Get a job.”
Dad wants Kent to get a lucrative job and make money the exact same way that he did; the way that Kent’s brother Flip has done as a plastic surgeon. Even though Dad appreciates the work of Taylor’s father James Bradley Scott, he cannot envision his own son being able to make a living as a novelist, and dismisses his efforts outright. He expects his son not to find his own way but to find a job for him by making “some calls.” In the third scene of this play is a very interesting exchange between Cheryl and Dad in the kitchen. Before Dad enters the kitchen, Cheryl is on the phone with her mother Ellie, whom we never see. Ellie asks her to ask Dad “if there’s anything he wants to say.” Cheryl says “ok.” When Dad enters and Cheryl tells him that Ellie was talking to her, he also in an indirect way lets Cheryl know that if she wanted to talk about anything she perhaps could. However this scene dramatically changes when Taylor enters. After she enters, when Cheryl says “I don’t know if there’s something you want to say to me” Dad replies “no” firmly, then says emphatically: “I said no. Don’t you have something to do?” Dad is reaffirming the patriarchal structure here, especially now that Taylor has entered the scene. He wants to keep up the appearance that there is absolutely no impropriety in him as patriarch of the Levay family. He does not want to bring any doubt about this role by mentioning whatever he thinks Cheryl wanted to know. Like his son Kent, Dad also has his own weaknesses and frailties, in this case his frailty is fear of being found out about whatever secret he is hiding from Cheryl. In the fourth scene, Cheryl has an interesting exchange with Taylor about her father’s work. Cheryl is able to engage Taylor about her father’s books more specifically than any other character in the play. She says to Taylor: “I liked what he was saying about the economic ramifications of the slave trade. [beat] And how he makes it so specific. [beat] And traces the debt from shippers to traders to banks.” Not only is Cheryl tracing the story written by Taylor’s father; Cheryl is also tracing the history of Kent’s great great grandfather whose wealth, that he bequeathed to three generations, depended on accumulating debt and passing those debts to banks. A debt that is presumably created by turning human beings into objects to be sold and traded as commodities for material profit. Taylor is not interested in engaging Cheryl however about her father’s book primarily because, as she disclosed in the prologue excised from the Broadway version of the play, she is still coping with abandonment from her father. To Taylor, James Bradley Scott could thoroughly articulate the immoral nature of the white supremacist capitalist economy, but could not thoroughly raise his own child forced to live in such an economy. Lydia Diamond is commenting on the role of public Black intellectuals in general via her fictional James Bradley Scott by asking: how could intellectuals care about correcting social structures when they can’t even care enough for their own children? This recalls Norman Kelley’s critique of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson being “market intellectuals” in his book The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome. He argues in this book that “market intellectuals” profit handsomely by identifying the ills of the white supremacist parasitic capitalist economy, rather than working in a meaningful way to revolutionize such a system. Taylor is a character in Stick Fly who could probably identify her own father as a “market intellectual.” No other character forces Taylor to confront her demons of feeling abandoned better than Kimber, Flip’s white girlfriend.
The fifth scene takes place in the living room, where Dad, Taylor, Kent, Flip, and Kimber are lounging and Cheryl is serving them. Kimber discovers that Flip has been describing her to his family as “Italian” and she makes it clear that she is not Italian, but “straight up WASP.” WASP is white Anglo Saxon Protestant. Kimber is a character that is clear throughout the play about her white privilege. She has no pretensions whatsoever about it. It is also clear that one of her underlying ambitions is to make her material world of white privilege, to those like Flip and Taylor who are not WASPs, more accommodating for them. She catches the interest of Kent when she tells him how impressed she was with his novel: “your imagery is amazing; really out of this world, and the ease with which you segue from one setting to the next. And the landscape, like a metaphor for the fragile state of Michael’s psyche.” Dad meanwhile is trying to get Taylor to finish a story about her junior year in college. In Taylor’s story she is the only Black student in a women’s studies class talking about what makes a perfect society. She asks the class: “is your utopia free of color distinctions?” She says the whole class environment became very racist when “one of the Beckys” said “if it was a utopian society, there would only be one dominant race.” Her professor called her to apologize for the turn the class took and Taylor said that the problem with the class started when no women of color were discussed in a class titled “Feminist Voices of the Twentieth Century.” Kimber responds to Taylor’s story of racism by saying she could be relentless. Taylor says “you can be relentless and keep chipping away at the bullshit, or you can be passive and confused and lose your mind.” Flip interjects that Taylor “lost it,” and asks Kimber and the rest to stop indulging her. He attempts to shift the conversation’s focus away from the racism Taylor’s critiquing by adding: “we’ve all went to good schools.” Taylor insists to Flip that her experience was different from his because him and Kent came from a richer class. Kimber disagrees with Taylor saying how it couldn’t have been much different since Taylor is the daughter of a public intellectual. But Taylor says he was his daughter “just by birth. He had a new family.” An argument ensues between Taylor and Kimber who suggests that Taylor’s plight cannot compare to the inner city kids who suffer from inadequate public education: “there you were at this privileged institution, with your famous dad and your new laptop to soothe yourself, and you’re upset because some stupid sorority chicks are mean to you?” Taylor replies:
“No, Kimber. I was upset because people like you can’t see it. Your inner city kids aren’t supposed to succeed…as long as they can stay ignorant and dependent on you, they won’t have to mess up the white spaces. They let one or two us in who’ve had enough privilege to almost play the game. Just enough to make us feel special. It’s a grand mindfuck. Then Kimmy here goes slummin’ for five minutes and knows all about it.
[To Kimber] You can kiss my black ass is what you can do with you I’m-such-a-Goddman-saint-inner-function-sanctum-of-rebellion-white-liberal bullshit. Don’t you ever come to me like that. You need to get your white ass out of my world, or keep your hippie drivel to your damn self…[mumbling to herself; italicized lines were not in original] Fuckin’ I’ll show Dad what happens when he doesn’t notice me…I’m too deep for cotillions, I’ll fuck black and I’ll show them all, bitch.”
The issue for Taylor is much deeper than the white liberal racism she mentions in this exchange with Kimber. Her base emotions that drive this whole tirade is seen in the lines she says while mumbling to herself. For Taylor, the root issue is being neglected by her father. This neglect is arguably responsible for her becoming attracted to Kent, then seeking approval from the Levay family and now to competing with Kimber for favor in the Levay family. Following this tirade, Taylor excuses herself and goes into the kitchen with Kent who is totally annoyed by her tirade. When he asks “what’s gotten into you,” she replies that Kent did not support her enough. Taylor wants support. She later says her late dad got a place over in Oak Bluffs and she is deathly scared of running into her dad’s family. She shares a story of how her mom asked her dad if Taylor could spend part of the summer with him and he said “it would be too complicated. We’re going to the Vineyard.” Tracie Thoms delivery of this line is especially powerful because at this time she is crying with strong emotion and the stage directions tell us that “Kent pulls Taylor into an embrace.” After his embrace, Kent says he needs a little time by himself and leaves the cottage. Taylor enters the kitchen where Flip is “eating a large piece of chocolate cake with gusto.” We find out in their exchange that Flip and Taylor used to date and that Taylor seemed to want better closure especially when she says: “you never called.” To this eventually Flip replies: “Why do you women do that? Like some damn The Way We Were Sunday flick. You, you’re a beautiful, smart woman, and you’ll lay down with just anyone who’s a little bit nice to you for gumbo and a cheap glass of wine?” Flip knows her weakness of feeling abandoned and consequently being sexually easy as a result of it. He later says referring to Taylor in third person:
“she’s so happy just to be there with me. And I ask her back to my place, really just to talk. ‘Cause I’m thinkin’ she’s…special. But I find that she’s no different. Just so willing to lay down and give herself over, to someone as undeserving as I. I didn’t have to work for it. So yes, I fuck her brains out…and forget all about her. Until this bitter, bitter girl comes home with my brother.”
Taylor says that Flip will never be happy with Kimber and Flip tells her that if she thinks of him when Kent touches her, she’ll have “the most intense orgasm” of her life. Taylor asserts that when she does have that orgasm it’ll be Kent’s name on her lips, “because he knows me. Better than I know myself.” And for the kicker back to Flip she says: “maybe if you weren’t so afraid you’d find that kind of love one day.” While Flip forces Taylor to think about how her abandonment issues cause her to shortchange herself, Taylor also forces Flip to challenge his artificial division between having sex and having a meaningful long term relationship.
The second act of this play begins with Cheryl on the phone with Ellie, asking her why couldn’t another maid work instead of her, especially in light of the revelation here that Dad Levay is not only Kent and Flip’s father. He’s also Cheryl’s. She discovers this on the phone in the presence of Kimber and says to her: “Please don’t say nothing to nobody…” Kimber tries to console Cheryl by telling her that her grandmother’s brother became an outcast by marrying an Irish immigrant: “In my world that’s beyond unacceptable.” Kimber is trying to relate to Cheryl by describing the suffering that her grand uncle faced for marrying a non-WASP Irishman, but as Cheryl tells her, “it doesn’t hold a candle.” Flip calls Kimber into the living room to massage his scalp with hair oil, and Taylor converses with Dad about what’s on her mind. Taylor tells him very directly: “I just find it exhausting never having a space that’s all mine.” Her father never welcomed a space for her the way Dad has for Kent and Flip; plus, in the Levay’s cottage, she is hoping not to run into her father’s other kin that is also not very welcoming. She also shares her love for entomology with Dad, that on some level explains her deep desire for meaningful attention. Taylor’s fascination with studying flies comes from a deep desire to be known and to be studied:
“you can’t just follow a fly around with a video cam, its too fast. Film, even digital, can’t pick up the nuances of a fly in motion. So, we glue a fly to a stick…And we hold the stick in front of a projection screen with three sides, like those Omnimax films, right? And we film his wing adjustments as we project objects coming at him.”
The title of this play comes from Taylor’s need to observe and theorize about a fly’s motion. “Stick Fly” is what Taylor is saying to her specimen in order to observe it. This fascination to observe this fly seems to come from her own personal need for loving attention, which comes from her father abandoning her. Like the fly, Taylor is continually moving to find that place, especially when she tells Dad she’s “exhausted” finding a place. Taylor seeks a place where she is not only noticed but welcomed. The Levay household is one place that just may stick her. This is what makes the truth of the Stick Fly Broadway logo so relevant: it shows a house on the end of a pin holding a yellow strip with a fly. The house in the logo is what pins the strip with the fly down. The house in the play attracts Taylor to essentially stop “flying” and land. Dad does not make the connection to Taylor’s interest in entomology but concludes she’s “freakishly smart.” At the same time Dad talks with Taylor, Flip is talking with Kimber. Diamond shows an interesting similarity between Taylor and Kimber by having both characters in different locations say the same lines at the same time: “I’m not jealous!” Kimber discloses to Flip that she can tell that him and Taylor slept together. Kimber says that she thinks that his brother Kent deserves better. When Kimber also notices that Cheryl’s got “the biggest crush” on Flip, Flip says his most condescending line in the play: “surely you’re not jealous of jailbait?” Flip is a character whose swagger allows him to have sex with women, even when he knows he’s “undeserving.” Kimber tells Flip: “the house, the family, you in this context, it got me.” Kimber is interested in fulfilling the white American dream and its rewards of the white picket fence and two kids. She critiqued Taylor about being “relentless” and like most beneficiaries of this society, she is not interested in the having her acquisition of material gain challenged, even though it came at the cost of oppressing people of color. While she does not talk about it at all, she is a proud carrier of white privilege. Taylor acknowledges Kimber’s white privilege when Dad tells her that the difference between her and Kimber is that Kimber doesn’t care whereas Taylor tries too hard to be liked. Taylor replies: “She’s never had to [want to be liked]. The world stops for women like that.” When Taylor asks if the idea of his family getting “diluted” by Kimber piss him off, he replies: “Don’t you know you know most Black folks got it ‘cause somewhere along the way somebody was raped in the kitchen.” When Dad brings up her dad, she replies: “he tells the white people, ‘you ain’t shit.’ They give him an award. ‘You still ain’t shit.’ Another award. Meanwhile what changes?” Taylor is not only questioning the role of her father; she is also questioning the role of the Black intellectual in American society today as well. Diamond is asking: what are Black public intellectuals doing to change society besides publicly critiquing it? In the second scene of the second act, which is later that morning, Kent surprises Taylor with the galley copies of his new novel in the living room. She notices that his novel’s dedication calls her “the love of my life.” Kimber enters and invites Taylor to go shopping with her: “we’ll be OK if we just talk about clothes and shoes.” Kimber is hoping Taylor will focus on the trinkets of patriarchal society of clothes and shoes, rather than combating the institutionalized racism that exists. Dad told Taylor: “I understand that you can be angry and not crazy. Just be a little more…constructive.” While Kimber is also hoping to smooth out the relationship with Taylor, she is also hoping that this trip can take the edge off of Taylor’s high perception of racism, especially after telling her that she can be “relentless.”
When Taylor and Kimber leave to go shopping, Dad and Flip for the first time identify the key norms of their upper class stability. Apart from Taylor, Dad tells Kent: “you’ve got a handful with that Taylor.” Flip follows with “seems high-maintenance women is a family tradition. That’s why I’m not even trying to…” Kent interrupts at this point, asking “Mom’s not high maintenance. Is she?” Dad answers “No, no. Not if you keep your mouth shut, stay low, and keep the cash coming.” Dad, as patriarch of the Levay family, shows that one key norm to maintaining peace and upper class stability is to “keep [his] mouth shut, stay low, and keep the cash coming.” This norm may work in some respects but not others. Flip thinks the best way to deal with this norm is to date white women, like Kimber, who tells him “we don’t have the kind of thing that makes it OK for me to be jealous.” This “agreement” is a green light for Flip to flirt with any woman he wants, as he demonstrated with Taylor at the end of Act One. Kent appropriately challenges this norm of “keeping [his] mouth shut” when he says “that doesn’t seem fair.” In the next scene, Taylor, Flip, Kent, and Kimber are playing Scrabble. After seeing Flip spell m-o-j-i-t-o, Taylor asks Cheryl to make a mojito. She then spells p-i-t-u-i-t-a-r-y. Kimber claims that her competition is drunk and withdraws from the game. Both Flip and Kent said they’ve tried to call their mother but apparently they haven’t heard from her. Kimber asks Taylor how she got interested in bugs, and Taylor said she was heartbroken about not being invited to a party, and her mother tells her, according to Taylor: “’look, baby, you just have to look at everyone like they’re bugs under a microscope. Like ants. Figure out the patterns.” Flip says “that sounds like a hippie, new-age, psycho Band-Aid.” However this is exactly what Taylor does in her life: she figures out the patterns by getting the fly to stick and by observing it when moving various objects in front of it. She says that advice from her mother worked and she doesn’t think her mother could have done any better because of how difficult it is to raise a little black girl around white privilege. Kimber makes the point that what Taylor went through is not the kind of racism that the kids she’s studied have gone through: “theirs is more institutional, a lack of resources, a general lack of investment from anyone who could make a difference.” Taylor then gives an anecdote about how her mother pulled her from a school because the teachers graded her satisfactory in reading and did not see a need for improvement: “And Mommy says, ‘satisfactory is not Taylor’s potential.’ And that was my last day at that school.” About Taylor’s anecdote Kimber says: “I get that your tale is supposed to be about the struggles to overcome adversity, or something. It’s a bad example. The parent is supposed to be a working part of the school system, to facilitate change.” Kimber in this line belittles the same kind of institutional racism she says that Taylor did not face much of compared to other Black kids, when she calls Taylor’s example of a racist public school system “adversity, or something.” Kimber does not consider the role that institutionalized racism plays in preventing parents from being “a working part of the school system.” This was seen most clearly in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville debacle of 1968 where the white dominated City of New York teamed up with the white dominated United Federation of Teachers to essentially forbid Black and Latino parents from exercising community control over their public schools. And recent mayors including Bloomberg have essentially continued that lack of control. Kimber tries to convince Taylor that she is the exception and because she is the exception, she should stop being so “relentless.” Kimber censors Taylor’s perceptions of racism in ways that mirror her own perceived academic censoring. However unlike the first heated exchange with Kimber, Taylor goes to the other extreme of letting Kimber essentially belittle her experience of racism. This is made complete when Kimber compares Taylor’s experience of racism to the fabricated story of her sister’s experience of being dumbed down because her perceived attractiveness. Kimber changes the thrust of Taylor’s anecdote to talk about her sister in order to leave the specter of institutionalized racism entirely. Kimber’s sympathy of “I feel your pain” comes in the form of her sister being treated a certain way because of perceived beauty. However the two can’t compare; as Cheryl pointed out with Kimber’s earlier example meant to sympathize with Cheryl: “it doesn’t hold a candle.” Not for Cheryl, but for Taylor. Taylor participates in Kimber’s belittling of her own experience when she helps Kimber tell her sister’s story and falsely compares herself to Becky: “Because satisfactory is all Becky needs.” This speaks to Taylor’s desperate need to be loved and accepted. By rectifying her earlier tirade in order to be accepted by the Levay family, she agrees with Kimber. She also agrees with Kimber after Dad told her to be “constructive” in order to fit into the kind of patriarchy which bows to white privilege. She also agrees with Kimber after Kimber was able on some level to seduce Taylor by taking her shopping for material items and divert her attention away from “chipping away at the bullshit.” Instead, Taylor in this second confrontation with Kimber chooses, by Taylor’s own admission to “be passive and confused and lose [her] mind.” Kimber is able to make her point of belittling institutionalized racism after and not before inviting Taylor to go shopping. White characters like Kimber depend on the moral and mental fragmentation experienced by Blacks like Taylor in order to thrive. And Tracie Thoms plays this kind of semi schizophrenia in Taylor, beautifully.
Taylor later pours Kimber tea in the kitchen. Cheryl takes a phone call from her mother and is obviously disturbed by it. Kent and Flip enter the kitchen. Cheryl yells on the phone: “stop…stop! I can’t do this!” When Flip asks for Sleepytime Tea, Cheryl blasts: “You know what. I’m done. You can kiss my ass is what you can do with your tea.” Cheryl is obviously very excited and Kent tries to comfort her, but she pushes him way. The stage directions tell us she is “hyperventilating.” Cheryl says that Ellie told her to ask him something and she did but he didn’t reply. Then she said that Mrs. Levay is calling and wants to talk to Dr. Levay but he won’t. She asks Flip and Kent: “and you two didn’t know?” To Cheryl who is now enraged, they didn’t know “because you don’t think ‘bout nothin’ but yourselves and your damn socioeconomic bantering, and bugs, and relationship dysfunction and shit…the most self-involved, bullshit people.” Cheryl is angry that Flip and Kent did not know that Dad is her father. The calls were ones of urgency from her mother asking that she finally knows who her biological father is. As Cheryl tells the story of how her mother tells her who her real father is, the rest of the entire cast is aghast:
So, this is the thing that’s the craziest. It wasn’t that Mrs. Levay was broken up about a kid who shares her own kids’ gene pool washing her crusty sheets. No, the tragedy was that it got out. She calls my mother, threatens to fire her…calls her out of her name, after Ma’s been quiet about it all these years…and threatens to take us to court for libel. I’m supposed to have a daddy got shot in the Gulf…And you knew…how can you live with yourself?
Flip and Dad ask whether what Cheryl has said is true and he does not deny it. This revelation by Cheryl prompts several meaningful lines from characters that challenge the norm of the Levays’ upper class stability and patriarchy. The first comes from Flip who asks Dad: “but tell me how you did not stop to think about us? While we were sleeping upstairs, you came down here and had your way with the maid? How did you not think about us? Shit.” In the final scene of this play, we see Kent, Cheryl, Kimber, Kent, and Taylor all at the table. Kent compares the previous scene to the Jerry Springer and leaves the kitchen. Flip follows him. He makes another meaningful inference about Cheryl’s revelation:
I just keep thinking of all the stories. How Daddy couldn’t stay in the dorms, or walk in the yard after sundown. How Daddy wasn’t allowed to make his valedictorian speech, or do his residency at Boston. How he got his ass kicked when those guys thought Mom was white. Wouldn’t that make you crazy? Wouldn’t that make you want to stake a claim on anything you could lay your hands on? Shit, even now he can’t play golf where his colleagues do.
Kent seems able to make this inference being the empathetic novelist he is. He reveals that he sees his father as a layered man, who in coping with white racism was trying to “stake a claim” somewhere by sleeping with his maid. Kent sees his father’s conception of an illegitimate child as him reclaiming his “manhood” that was denied to him because of his race. Because he was denied this opportunity, in Kent’s eyes, Dad could finally seize the opportunity to prove his manhood by fathering a child out of wedlock. After realizing the pain of trying to fit into this ideal of manhood has caused Kent comes into himself and more strongly affirms who he is as a man. His father regularly attacked his manhood, and not Flip’s, by dismissing his ambition to be a novelist. However Cheryl’s revelation has allowed Kent to find himself outside the confines of the patriarchy that Dad and Flip closely followed:
All this time, all these years, I’ve been running up under you two. Hating myself because I have no desire to kill deer, or climb mountains, or rate pussy. Dad taught us both that there was something wrong with me for that. And I believed it. I’m fifteen and all I want, just like every other fifteen year old boy, is to have a cute girl like me, maybe get to second base…but I’m thinkin’ I can’t because I’ve got some sort of testosterone deficiency. My daddy made me think that. Why? Because I give a shit about people? Because I don’t put myself first? Because I hear what women say, and actually like them for it? I admire the hell out of you, Flip. I do. You the man. I just wanted you to think the same about me…Dad doesn’t like me because he doesn’t like himself. But it doesn’t matter. That’s his cross. I’m done.
Kent realizes that the ideal his father presented was not real and was an ideal constructed by Dad to cover his paternity to Cheryl, “stay low” and maintain patriarchy. Kent and Flip end up arguing in the living room over exactly Mom’s role in this revelation. Flip believes that Mom played some role in Dad’s infidelity but Kent doesn’t. Kent says about their mother: “She went slumming, got what she was shopping for, and spent the rest of their lives punishing Dad for it.” Kent resents Flip’s simplistic take: “It was cruel. It was wrong. And if he’s really got you convinced that’s the rules, you’re gonna be fucked…or I guess you’ll marry some poor passive white girl with self-esteem issues and torture her.” Kent later punches Flip when he discovers that Flip, like Dad, slept with Ellie. In the kitchen, Cheryl asks Kimber why she loves Flip and she replies: “I want to have the babies of the man I love. They’ll come out whatever color they come out, and I will love them because they will be my babies. You can’t know this. But you will. You will fall in love one day, and you will know this.” At the end of this scene is a final reconciling between Cheryl, Kimber and Taylor.
In the fifth and final scene of the play, Cheryl confronts Dad:
I was really cute. And you couldn’t see me, and love, me, and want me? How come you couldn’t see yourself in my eyes? How come you couldn’t feel like you was put here to protect me?...But I just didn’t matter? And you still don’t see me. Me. Me. Your daughter. The first man who loves you is supposed to be your father. You were supposed to love me first. And best. And how can anyone ever love me right if you couldn’t love me first? And I’m thinkin’ I’m mad at the white girl, ‘cause she took my men…but she didn’t…they just don’t see me. And I’m thinkin’ I don’t like Taylor ‘cause she trying so hard to be seen. But I don’t like her ‘cause she like me. She got the same…holes in her. But all this time, it was you. I deserve to be seen.
Cheryl speaks for the thousands of Blacks who worked as menial slaves, including those who were shipped without thought of their humanity, when she demands to be seen by her biological father. She blames this for hers and Taylor’s low self esteem more than she blames institutional racism. She is expressing her innermost emotions when in anger she calls Kent and Flip superficial, by not seeing how their patriarchal, leisure-based upper class privileges requires rendering those below to not be seen. She is hoping by her revelation and her telling her father that she deserves to be seen that she will upset the norms on which the Levay patriarchy is based, namely the norms that says that those servant classes under them are rendered invisible. Cheryl understands that part of why Dad’s paternity was ignored was because her mother is the maid. Cheryl is hoping that the love for his daughter will prevail over any class distinctions and he will defy “staying low” and defy the patriarchy in order to see her. But we see that he doesn’t. When Dad tells her he doesn’t know what she wants, Cheryl replies: “then I feel sorry for you.” She feels sorry that Dad has essentially bought into American patriarchy. Taylor tells Dad “She wanted you to say, ‘I’m sorry…I love you…I’m here for you.” She then asks Dad Levay the question she always wanted to ask her own father: “how is it someone who’s supposed to be a genius, who’s supposed to have such a capacity for understanding the workings of the human mind, could treat family like this? What kind of sickness lets you just cut the inconvenient pieces out. I just want to know.” Dad eventually replies: “It has something to do with manhood and self-preservation, and struggling to prove yourself all the time.” Dad and Flip plan to leave, but Taylor insists to both men; “you all need to stay!” Then she says: “Please don’t leave me.” Kent restrains her, saying “It’s not your fight!” The stage directions tell us that Kent pulls Taylor into his embrace and soothes her. Dad and Flip argue over Dad’s jabbing comment Kent and Dad ends up explaining his actions:
“There isn’t a single one of you that hasn’t kept secrets or made mistakes. So you kids think carefully if you want to start throwing stones up in this house. Pretty much from the second they bring you ingrates home from the hospital, every waking moment is spent trying to keep your asses safe and provided for. [to Flip] are your teeth straight? I did that. [To Kent] Did you get any degree from any school that you wanted? I followed the rules. I worked hard. I supported the household. I gave you everything. You are equipped. [To Cheryl] Even you. That was my time, my money, my choices. I tell you what, you go out there and find me a mind who hasn’t made mistakes, then you judge.”
The stage directions tell us that Dad later “looks at Cheryl, starts toward her and then backs away. He shoulders his duffle bag. And, without looking back, walks out of the door.” He justifies his rendering Cheryl and all others who are below his class as invisible. He justifies not recognizing Cheryl as a daughter the way she wanted. Kent tells Taylor even after learning about her tryst with Flip that “life is going to be a lot easier, for both of us, if you’ll just accept that I’m not leaving. Ever.” The play ends with Taylor asking a question that more or less defines her character: “do you think they liked me?” She, unlike Cheryl, is hoping to fit into the patriarchal system that renders menial workers like Ellie and Cheryl as invisible. It is a system that allowed Dad to see Ellie as a sexual object to be conquered in order to redeem one’s so called manhood. It is also a system that allowed Dad to see Cheryl as nothing more than a mouth to feed in order to keep the secret of his paternity to Cheryl hidden. In Stick Fly Lydia Diamond is making profound statements about ultimately the need to challenge patriarchy through Cheryl’s dramatic revelation. She identifies issues of low esteem in Cheryl and Taylor coming not so much from institutionalized racism, but more from abandonment by fathers who do not critique the patriarchal society in which they live. A patriarchal society that was based on the “shipping” of human beings whose humanity had to be denied in order for the colonial economic colonial system to thrive.
Lydia Diamond’s commentary on the patriarchal system bears important similarities to the patriarchal system presented in Lorraine Hansberry’s screenplay The Drinking Gourd. The play, according to Hansberry’s former husband Robert Nemiroff, was trying to understand the thinking of the white male master, or white male plantation owner. She explored what it meant to have a mentality that sought to maintain the ignorance of the enslaved. The play’s main characters include the master, Hiram and his son Everett who is trying to convince his father that the only way to keep his plantation running is to increase the number of hours per day his slaves work. The play takes place at the eve of the Civil War and Hiram disagrees with his son. Hiram is convinced that to increase the number of hours of work per day for the slave will only increase the number of runaways they’ve suffered and thus cause the plantation to suffer more. However Everett convinces his father to hire more overseers in order to ensure his increased work output. Everett hires the overseer Zeb who is a poor white farmer. In his first scene Zeb is arguing with his Reverend about the morality of slavery. When Everett asks if Zeb would consider being an overseer despite its inhumanity, Zeb ignores his Reverend’s advice and resolves to be an overseer on Hiram’s plantation in order to provide for his children.
In Robert Nemiroff’s critical background of this play, he writes how Lorraine Hansberry showed how plantation economies towards the Civil War focused on the production of slaves more than they did the production of cotton. Everett was a character who, by hiring Zeb and by proposing the increase in the number of hours worked per day, was more interested in producing slaves than in producing cotton. Hannibal is a slave on Hiram’s plantation who is defying rules of patriarchy by learning how to read. His mother Sarah who is a sort of mammy to Hiram, is trying to secure a place with Hiram for Hannibal to be a house slave. However Hannibal tells his mother he would rather runaway than be a house slave. Unfortunately, Hannibal is caught learning how to read from Hiram’s youngest son Tommy. His eyes are gouged and Hannibal is blinded. In The Drinking Gourd, Everett represents progress which means keeping the patriarchal system intact. In Stick Fly, Flip represents progress which also means keeping the patriarchal system intact. While Sarah wanted to keep the patriarchal system intact so her son could have a role in it as a house slave, Hannibal entirely rejected this system and sought to undermine it by joining the runaways. By blinding Hannibal, Everett and Zeb confirm their making of Hannibal invisible and they hope that he sees himself as such as well. Hannibal was blinded because he wants to read. He will use his knowledge to read in order to navigate the world outside of Hiram’s plantation in order to challenge it and undermine it. Cheryl’s ability to read is part of what leads her to challenge the Levay household. She understands the importance of being loved, receiving attention. She reads and appreciates the point in James Bradley Scott’s book about the debt due to slavery being passed to shippers then bankers and ultimately takes a position that critiques the system that builds debt by rendering indigenous and African bodies invisible and consequently inhumane. Hansberry’s story ends with all of Hiram’s skepticism about Everett’s plan being confirmed. The last scene of this screenplay has Hiram’s enslaved including Hannibal running away with guns, ultimately undermining Hiram’s patriarchal structure. Hansberry seems to show how Everett’s insistence on creating slaves rather than cotton precipitated the fall of his father’s plantation. The last scene of Stick Fly has Dad looking at Cheryl and choosing to continue not seeing her and continuing patriarchy. Diamond ultimately seems to be saying that whether its run by a white plantation owner or whether its run by a Black intellectual neurosurgeon: a kind of patriarchy that renders any human being invisible needs to be weakened if not destroyed. –RF.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy about her 2008 biography of Michelle Obama entitled "Michelle." This book was researched and completed before the Obama inauguration. I loved reading this book and I loved my conversation with Liza Mundy. The book really helped me appreciate the ambition of Michelle Obama. The two major moves in Michelle Robinson's life came about as a result of her writing letters. This is before email became popular in the nineties. She wrote a letter to Sidley Austin when she was in Princeton. It was because of this letter that got her in their Chicago law firm where she met her future husband. While at Sidley Austin, she wrote a letter to Valerie Jarrett, who worked in the Daley mayoral administration who was so impressed with her letter and her conversation, that she invited Michelle Obama to work with her in the Daley administration. Michelle Obama's letter writing is a testament to the importance of reading and writing in the lives of African Americans. Michelle Obama is a descendant of an enslaved people who were persecuted for learning to read, in order to remain psychologically enslaved and enslaved by law. Michelle Obama, however, uses her free will ability to read and to write to advance herself and break the gender norms of domesticity that much of her female descendants were proscribed by. I agreed with Mundy's point in this biography that Michelle Obama is a "radical integrationist" and I am interested in how her role as this is changing American society. Most of all I appreciate how Liza Mundy's writing of Michelle Obama shows how she is so much greater than the domesticated First Lady role that mainstream America wants to proscribe her to. Michelle Obama is much bigger than the role she plays as First Lady. I hope this interview and Liza Mundy's book is a testament to this. -RF.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the 2011 AUDELCO awards. AUDELCO stands for Audience Development Company, and was founded in 1973 by Vivian Robinson as a way to consistently recognize outstanding work in Black theater. The play that gathered most AUDELCO awards this year was Charles Smith's play KNOCK ME A KISS. It picked up eight awards including best dramatic production of the year. This is a powerful period piece set in 1928 that focuses on the marriage of Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, and poet Countee Cullen. This was a production of the New Federal Theater and Creative Arts Legacy from Chicago. I was grateful to see a performance of this play around this time last year and what impressed me most about this play was how sympathetic the character of Yolande was to me. I was able to relate to her ideas about marriage requiring stability but more than anything, I was able to relate to her in the second half of the play when she feels shame for following society's standards about marriage and how that limited her options in ways that it didn't limit Countee's. Knock Me A Kiss was a powerful play for me because it is set in the same year that a play that I wrote is set in: 1928. And it deals with similar issues of marriage and fidelity to one's partner and one's profession and how the two interact. I hope this play gets a very important new life.
Congratulations to all 2011 AUDELCO award winners: lighting design, Shirley Prendergast for KNOCK ME A KISS; for set design, Anthony Davidson for KNOCK ME A KISS; for costume design, Ali Turns for KNOCK ME A KISS; for sound design, Bill Toles for KNOCK ME A KISS; for director of a dramatic production, Chuck Smith for KNOCK ME A KISS; for choreography, Tracy Jack for IT AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT THE BLUES; for playwright, Charles Smith for KNOCK ME A KISS; for supporting actor, Andre Holland for THE WHIPPING MAN; for supporting actress, Marie Thomas for KNOCK ME A KISS; for outstanding female performance in a musical, Toni Seawright for THE WIDOW AND MISS MAMIE; for outstanding male performance in a musical, Tommie Johnson for THE WIDOW AND MISS MAMIE; for outstanding musical director, Ron Granger for THE WIDOW AND MISS MAMIE; for outstanding musical production, IT AINT NOTHIN BUT THE BLUES; for outstanding ensemble performance, the cast of PLAYING WITH HEINER MULLER; for best solo performance, Stephanie Berry for THE SHANEEQUA CHRONICLES; for best lead actor, Andre De Shields for KNOCK ME A KISS; for best lead actress it was a tie: Sanaa Lathan for BY THE WAY MEET VERA STARK and Kimberlee Monroe for NOBODY KNEW WHERE THEY WAS. For best drama, KNOCK ME A KISS.
Congratulations for Jackie Jeffries for her getting AUDELCO'S Board of Directors Award. I had the pleasure of seeing the play Jackie produced called A SEASON IN THE CONGO written by the late great Aime Cesaire. This play bears so much relevance to the tragic ousting of Gadafi that took place earlier this year. Cesaire chose to dramatize a leader with strong popular democratic appeal who was ousted by the U.S. because he would not participate in the U.S. exploitation of African resources. I applaud Jackie Jeffries' choice to produce this important play in 2010 to shed light on how our foreign policies continue to undermine the sovereign rights of other nations. I will continue to support Jackie's powerful work.
I am grateful to see the legacy and vision of Vivian Robinson continue with the AUDELCO awards and I hope that despite our government's very repressive austerity measures, we will still have Black theater to celebrate for years to come. I hope we will put in the work needed to protest military occupations across the world and lobby as a citizen for more funding for arts education in school. -RF.
(PHOTO OF THE CAST OF KNOCK ME A KISS, clockwise from top left: Marie Thomas who played Nina Du Bois, Erin Cherry who played Yolande Du Bois, Sean Phillips who played Countee Cullen, and Andre De Shields who played W.E.B. Du Bois, COURTESY OF WEBSITE: http://www2.journalnow.com/entertainment/2011/aug/04/wsmet03-knock-me-a-kiss-sparkles-as-cast-shines-ar-1267554/)
Friday, November 11, 2011
A BRAVE MARTYR OF THE NEGRO REVOLUTION: A FULL REVIEW OF KATORI HALL’S PLAY THE MOUNTAINTOP IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PRISON LETTERS OF GEORGE JACKSON
(WARNING: This review explains the whole story of this play so if you do not want to know the whole story because you plan to see this play and you want to be surprised, please don't read this review)
In her play The Mountaintop, Katori Hall presents a very sympathetic portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his last night alive. Her stage directions tell us: “Lights up. Night. April 3, 1968. Room 306. The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee.” While none of us actually know what exactly went through the mind of Martin Luther King the night before he died, it is obvious that the literary imagination of Katori Hall in producing Martin Luther King is one that contains his most important political message of anti imperialism. In about one hundred minutes, all of which take place in a hotel room on stage, we learn so much more about Martin Luther King Jr., namely his mortality but also the brutal world in which he loses his mortality. The play assumes a knowledge about the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. on American society and captures important and threatening words and messages King conveyed, mainly his growing critique of American imperialism. In fact, King’s first words are his reading his own speech saying: “Why America is going to hell…America you are too ARROGANT! [caps in Hall’s original]” This is a direct reference to King’s April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church where he condemns America for killing people of color in Vietnam. He later said in this speech: “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of Vietnamese people” (Washington, ed., 239). His speech was so controversial that he was killed exactly one year following this speech on April 4, 1968.
Hall chooses to begin her interpretation of King with this utterance of “America you are too ARROGANT!” He then calls room service and asks for coffee. Soon, a maid Camae, arrives, whom stage directions tell us is “a beautiful young maid.” When she comes in the room and sets the tray on a table downstage from her entrance, and bends down, King “appreciates his view.” Hall shows King as a man who is weakened by a woman’s physical beauty. This is one of known human foibles of King that made up this brilliant thinker and intellectual. Camae tells King “shame I ain’t get a chance to see ya tonight. I heard you carried on a storm up at Mason Temple.” Katori Hall told many news outlets that her own mother, Carrie Mae, was planning to see King on the night of his actual April 3rd speech at Mason Temple. She did not get to attend after talk of a bomb threat. In Camae we see important connections to Hall herself. Through Camae, Hall provides a living breathing character who can more directly attest to the strength of that speech. When King asked how Camae knew about this speech, she replies, “Negro talk strike faster than lightnin.”…I would like to have seen that. Somethin’ to tell my chiren.” We see a desire to have been there on April 3rd, 1968, by the real Carrie Mae like the Camae in the play.
King is impressed by Camae’s choice of cigarettes: Pall Malls. In fact , before Camae even arrives, we hear him yelling outside his motel room to Ralph Abernathy for some Pall Malls. When King sees Camae taking out a pack of Pall Malls, he is impressed. He coaxes her to smoke one with him: “just one. Til my friend come back with my pack.” Camae replies: “you sho’ll do try hard at it,” and joins King in a smoke. They talk. Camae tells King it must be “grand fun” to preach the way he does, then she adds an exclamation: “Must be muthaf—kin’ grand to mean so much to somebody. Shit, GODDAMN must be grand. (Beat) Where a needle and threat to sew up my mouth? Here I is just a cussin all up in front of you, Dr. Kang. I cuss worser than the sailor with the clap…Fallin’ straight to hell.” King replies “No ma’am, ‘cordin’ to your face, you done fell straight from heaven.” Camae replies saying “You lil’ pulpit poet you. I likes you.” King replies to that: “I likes you, too.” The phone rings and its King’s wife, Dr. Coretta Scott King. King converses yet as Camae tries to leave, he motions for her to stay. When King finishes, Camae says: “She’s beautiful. Yo’ wife. I seen’t her on the tv down at Woolworth’s, too. Coretta Scott K—“ but before she finishes the “King,” King interrupts, according to the directions, in a correcting way, with “Mrs. King.” Here Hall introduces the class difference between King and Camae here. Before Camae gains any wild notions of familiarity with Dr. King himself, he makes sure to dispel them by reminding her that his wife is Mrs. King, not Coretta, to Camae. Hall’s King in an extremely subtle way reminds Camae not to expect their encounter to last more than that night. And according to the play and to history, it really doesn’t. Hall in an important way shows King’s upper class status as a trained intellectual who makes sure he does not let the status of working class African American affect what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has described in Righteous Discontent standards of class respectability. In King’s mind, if Camae is familiar enough to call Mrs. King Coretta, then she might be familiar enough to tell others about King’s weaknesses with her which, in King’s mind, may in fact be a familiarity too threatening to the causes that King was fighting for. However Hall shows us that later that Camae has a strong passion for fighting the race and class oppression that King is fighting against.
King asks for Camae’s opinion on a speech he gives and his looks. After he looks in the mirror, he tells her “I done got to looking old.” When King asks Camae whether women prefer men with wrinkles, Camae chooses to mock King by telling him: “I don’t. I likes ‘em young and wild. Like me.” When King says “I used to be young and wild myself,” Camae replies “you a preacher. That’s part a’ y’all job requirement. How you know what you ain’t supposed to do if you ain’t done it, yaself? Folk won’t listen to you otherwise. That what I call ‘work experience.’ More than qualify ya for the position.” King asks Camae for another cigarette and Camae repeats her refrain, “you SHO’LL try hard at it.” As she prepares to leave one more time, King returns her newspaper to her, and notices that the date on it reads “April 4th.” When he asks her how she got the next day’s newspaper, Camae “shrugs” and says “Tomorrow already here.” Hall is obviously at this moment playing with time and using Camae to do so. In her mind while she was writing this, Camae represents for her, like her mother, a reservoir for the living embodiment of King. Camae in this play blurs time distinction for King. Camae is by now he’s concluded an unusual guest in his room. King reads the headline of the paper she brings:
“’King Challenges Court Restraint. Vows to March.’ [he says] They got that right! This Mayor Loeb calls himself not allowing these sanitation workers to march (to himself). Over my dead body. (reading) ‘Yesterday two U.S. marshals sped across town to serve the Negro leaders with copies of the order. They found Dr. King and four other defendants at the Lorraine Motel...the city said it was seeking the injunction as a means of protecting Dr. King…We are fearful that in the turmoil of the moment, someone may even harm Dr. King’s life…and with all the force of language we can use, we want to emphasize that we don’t want that to happen…” (Chuckles to himself) Wish the mayor had jurisdiction over air planes, too. You know, Camae, somebody called in a bomb threat on my place from Atlanta to Memphis? Thank God they didn’t find one.”
To this Camae concludes “civil rights’ll kill ya’ fo’ them Pall Malls will.” Following this, thunder strikes, and King puts his hand over his chest. The stage directions tell us he begins to breathe hard. The thunder is a shock not only to King but also to the unsuspecting audience member, which helps, on some level, for the audience member to feel some empathy for King and the growing fragility of his life. Hall is rightfully calling into the question the Memphis mayor’s promise of security, especially when at this point his life has been threatened in so many ways. Camae tells King that he should not be scared of a “lil’ lightnin.” When King is about to tell Camae what he thinks the thunder really sounds like, Camae interrupts and says the thunder sounds like “fireworks.” Instead of countering this simile, King agrees and spares her his concerns about the real threat on his life. Camae says: “Mama used to take us on down to Tom Lee Park to see the fireworks every Fourth of July.” When King says “Independence Day,” Camae replies “That right, y’all bougie Black folk call it Independence Day. I can’t seem to quite call it that yet.” Here Hall again presents the class difference between King and Camae here again. By calling King “bougie” Hall lets us know that Camae is definitely from the working class ranks in a closer way than King is. King then tells Camae: “You sho’ll is pretty, Camae.” Camae replies: “that ‘bout the third time you done tole me that.” We see how Hall shows again that noticing the beauty of women was one of King’s main preoccupations. When King feels self conscious about this, Camae replies: “Shuga, shush. You just a man. If I was you, I’d be starin’ at me, too.”
He later has an important debate with Camae about the utility of the tactic of marching in the fight for Black liberation. When King says that Negro folks done seemed to have lost their manners in Detroit, Camae says that if that is the case, she needs to move up there. Camae says that “walking will only get you so far, Preacher Kang.” King replies, “we’re not just walking; we’re marching.” Camae then replies: “whatever it is, it ain’t workin.” King says its not working because of “trifiling Negroes who call themselves using a peaceful protest to get a free color television…We’re marching for a living wage…not a damn color tv! It just gives these police an excuse to shoot innocent folks. Like that boy…that 16 year old boy they shot. Last week? (quietly to himself) Larry Payne. Larry Payne. Larry Payne.” Hall powerfully shows the critique King makes against rioting Blacks who ruin his cause when they try to steal material items. This is an incredibly sympathetic King. Hall’s King wants all Black people to relinquish material items for the greater cause of social justice. He finishes to Camae: “Well, we back [in Memphis] and we gonna do it right this time. So Larry Payne won’t have to have died in vain. Douglas Valentine writes that the day King arrived in Memphis on March 28, 1968, then Governor of Tennessee Buford Ellington called out the Tennessee National Guard. At 2PM that day, Larry Payne, a black high school student was shot and killed by Memphis cops (DiEugenio, ed., 515). The policemen claimed that Payne was attempting to loot a service station on South 3rd Street, and that he attacked them with a butcher knife. We have heard similar falsified reports by police justifying their brutality and murder of unarmed Black men. This, according to Hall, is a murder that King feels on some level responsible for. He is marching with sanitation workers so that their cause is not lost. King talks about how much he feels attacked by the mainstream media. When he hands her a cigarette and she takes it, he notices how she inhales and says: “you smoke like a man.” Camae replies: “you smoke a like a fruit,” to which King says: “aww, Camae don’t use those kinda words…” Camae replies: “what, you root for the fruits?” King says: “indeed I do. Alla God’s children got wings.” We see a side of King that is sympathetic towards gay rights, like his wife faithfully was, throughout her life. We get small clues about who Camae really is throughout this play. When Camae teaches King the way she thinks one ought to smoke, “like its going out of style,” she says she wishes she could take a picture of it. King then asks her if she is with the FBI, to which Camae replies: “Naw. Something bigger.” This is yet another clue about Camae’s identity. Camae tells King if he wants to lead the people he has to smoke like the people. We see the intimacy growing between them in this hotel room. King teaches Camae about the very personal ambitions he has for more rights for sanitation workers. And Camae teaches King how to break the mold of upper class respectability in order to accomplish his ambition of acquiring rights for sanitation workers. When Camae says “walkin’ will only get us so far,” King replies by saying “killin’ will get you hung.” King advocates a more moderate approach in the face of wanton white racist violence. Hall shows us a leader who is not willing to see violence as an effective tactic to fight white racism. Hall shows King breaking class norms and gender norms of respectability most strongly when King directly asks Camae “if you were me, what would you do?” Hall shows how King is challenging the traditional patriarchy of the ministerial organization he belonged to, which was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), by showing genuine interest in a woman’s ideological opinion. We know from Barbara Ransby’s biography of grassroots organizer Ella Baker that King like other SCLC ministers had problems seeing women in roles other than secretarial. Ransby writes:
A rhetoric of racial equality marked the public pronouncements of SCLC leaders, while old hierarchies based on gender inequities endured within their ranks. Baker refused to accept the situation in silence. She criticized ministerial leaders who came to meetings late and left early, disregarding the inconveniences they caused for the female clerical staff. They expected the women workers to cater to them, Baker complained. Although she never publicly named names, Baker also alluded to unprincipled sexual behavior on the part of some male ministers involved in the movement. She confided to one researcher that certain SCLC ministers would come into the office in the afternoon "after spending the morning at some sister's house doing what they shouldn't have been doing... you see, I know too many stories." The ministers' arrogant assumption that they stood above the moral rules they preached to others cost them Baker's respect as ministers and as men (Ransby, 185).
By showing King’s interest in what Camae would say, Hall shows how King challenged the traditional hierarchy. Yet we know this was motivated on some level by King’s physical attractiveness to Camae. However this raises the question of whether his motives was genuinely softening her to him, or genuinely wanting to know her ideology on this matter of fighting for racial justice. In order to show him what she would do, Camae asks to borrow King’s jacket and to wear his shoes. She then preaches a sermon reminiscent of one by Mother/Sister in Marcus Gardley’s play Every Tongue Confess. The most compelling part of this sermon is that draws most audience attention is the very end. This sermon is also reminiscent of the one by Meridian Henry in James Baldwin’s Blues For Mister Charlie. It deals with the question of how to deal with white racism most directly. In it Camae preaches:
“We have gathered here today to deal with a serious issue...HOW do we deal with the white man? I have told you that the white man is our brother. And he should be treated as such…But it is hard to do this when our brother beats his fist upon our flesh. When he greets us with “Nigger” and “Go back to Africa,” when he punches us in our bellies swelling with hunger…To this I say, my brethren, a new day is coming. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, and today is the day that I tell you to KILL the white man! (sotto voice) But not with your hands. Not with your guns. But with your miiiiiiind! (back to regular voice)”
Camae turns this into a comical moment when she proceeds to curse at the end of this, but the significance of this sermon as a literary piece is not only its theme of how clergy teach Blacks how to cope with white racism, it is also significant because this is exactly the message that George Lester Jackson shares that the only way to kill the violence of white supremacy on the lives of Black people is to use one’s mind. To sharpen one’s consciousness. However this important message becomes lost in the comedy that Camae plays up when she curses at the end of this sermon.
King begins to sympathize with her message of fighting back the forces that violently try to stamp out self-determination of Black people. Camae says “last time I heard you was preachin’ ‘everybody the same.’ Negro folk. White folk. We all alike.” King chooses to explain this by saying “we all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves. They just scared. Scared of losin’ somethin’ that they’ve known their whole lives. Fear makes us human. We all need the same basic things. A hug. A smile.”
King and Camae end up in a well written, well performed, dramatic dispute about how Camae delivered her sermon. This exchange builds the intimacy between these characters. However when Camae asks King how her oratorical skills compare to his, he says “I’m better…Nobody can make it pretty like me. I’ve been doing this for years, darlin.’ Gonna be doin it till the day I die.” When Camae asks if it was good for a woman, King says yes and once again affirms the patriarchal expectations that subjugate a woman’s place below a man’s when it comes to preaching. However when Camae asks if her sermon was good for a man, King replies: “then you’d be Malcolm X.” Camae plays with King and says: “so you callin’ Malcolm X a sissy?” She runs to the room door, opens it, and yells outside the room that Martin is calling Malcolm a sissy. Camae is playing on the supposed feud between the two. She tells Martin that “God liked Malcolm X. And you woulda liked him, too. He didn’t drank. Smoke. Cuss. Or…Cheat. On. His Wife.” Camae means for this line to sink into Martin. When Camae tells King that Malcolm is in heaven, Martin shows some doubt: “I don’t know, now. He talked a lot of…”Truth?” Camae interjects. To this King replies: “A lot of violence. He had a weakness for violent words. Speak by the sword, die by the sword.” Hall shows a Martin Luther King who believed the mainstream narrative about Malcolm X dying by violence because he supposedly preached violence. Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm challenges this mainstream memory of Malcolm. Camae seems to understand better than Hall’s King, perhaps because of her working class experience, that Malcolm spoke by love when he critiqued the colonial relationship that upholds white racist violence against Blacks. She tells King “speak by love, die by hate. We all have weaknesses, Preacher Kang. I’m sho’ you got yo’ own. Just ain’t never let nobody…know. For what it worth, I know God like you. The real you.” Camae corrects King’s misunderstanding of Malcolm’s murder by saying that Malcolm was speaking out of his love for Black people but died, not by his own hatred, but by the hatred of the powers-that-be that paid mercenaries to kill him because he was threatening their colonial order. George Jackson in an April 4, 1970 letter to his lawyer Fay Stender writes:
We were colonized by the white predatory fascist economy. It was from them that we evolved our freak subculture, and the attitudes that perpetuate our conditions. These attitudes cause us to give each other up to the Klan pigs. We even on occasion work gun in hand right with them. A Black killed Fred Hampton; blacks working with the CIA killed Malcolm X…”
When Camae says “die by hate” she is referring to this betrayal by mercenaries that Jackson discusses. The mercenaries, according to Jackson, gave themselves and Malcolm and Martin, up to the Klan pigs. Mercenaries are those who choose to cooperate with the state in a targeted assassination. By discussing Malcolm’s weaknesses, Camae reduces the magnitude of Malcolm’s strategic use of violence in King’s mind. It is no longer a primary direct cause of Malcolm’s death. Instead it is one of many steps, one of which includes the angering of what Jackson calls the “Klan pigs.” The presence of George Jackson’s writings is especially significant in understanding the gulf between Martin and Malcolm and how they’re being presented by Hall. They represent two different ideologies that strove for the same goal of Black freedom. In the play, Martin faces his death as he is organizing sanitation workers on a strike. Malcolm faces his death as he is about to organize revolutionaries on the continent of Africa against European colonization. Both were fighting for the same goal however within two different streams: a Negro revolution and a Black revolution. In Malcolm’s seminal “Message to the Grassroots” on November 10th, 1963, Malcolm articulated the difference between the two: “revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way” (Marable, 264). What took place since Martin and Malcolm’s deaths in the sixties was in fact a Negro revolution in terms of Negroes being allowed in higher education and public offices like never before. The Negro revolution brought about the end of the segregated buses in Montgomery, the end of segregated bus travel, the end of formal voting discrimination. However this revolution fell short of what Malcolm was trying to achieve in a Black revolution. A Black revolution required a total redistribution of resources and wealth from the current society. Camae seemed to understand the need for a Black revolution in completely securing the rights of Blacks that have been historically discriminated. In a March 1967 letter to his mother, George Jackson writes:
“you know I have grown very, very tired of talking and listening to talk. King and his kind have betrayed our bosom interests with their demagogic delirium. The poor fool knows nothing of the opposition’s true nature and hasn’t the perception to read and learn by history and past events…That nonviolent theory is practicable in civilized lands among the civilized people, the Asians and the Africans, but a look at European history shows that anything of great value that ever changed hands was taken by force of arms…The depressed peoples of the world are very shortly going to grow tired of being wooed and lulled into passivity and quiet endurance by chromium and neon lights…They’ll come out of their coma with a bloodlust and justified indignation for social injustice that will sweep the asphalt right from under the empire builders” (90).
Like Camae, George Jackson sympathizes with the strategic use of violence to fight against white racist violence. She humanizes Malcolm before Martin and reduces him from the stereotype that the mainstream constructed following his death in order to make him appear crazy for wanting to effectively combat white racist violence. Hall continues to humanize Martin when Camae tells him “I don’t like no man wit’ no smelly feet…Who woulda thunk Dr. Kang got stanky feet. Oooo! And you got holes in yo’ socks, too?” King replies: “you make it easy…to make a man forget about it all. About…all…this…” Camae replies prophetically: “that’s what I’m here for.” After hearing another thunder strike, King, we’re told, “stumbles back in a daze.” We then discover he can’t breathe. He seems to be losing consciousness. Desperately trying to resuscitate him, Camae calls him another name, “Michael! Michael! MICHAEL!! Michael, just breathe!” When King slowly regains consciousness, he asks Camae how she knew to call him that: “that is my name. My childhood name. How do you know my real name? My Christian name?” When Camae does not answer directly, he accuses her of being a spy and tells her to get out. The stage directions tells us: “Enraged. King overturns the furniture, searching for bugs he may have glossed over.” Hall shows how concerned King was about being manipulated by the state whom he assumed uses his weakness—an attractive woman—to derail him from his important work of organizing sanitation workers. He tells Camae: “sending tapes to my wife. Tryin’ to break up my family. Tryin’ to break my spirit!” Camae replies: “Preacher Kang, calm down!” He drags Camae to the door in order to push her out but when he opens the door he sees a wall of snow covering the door way. The stage directions tell us: “a huge gust of wind blows in snow that piles at his feet. He lets go of Camae’s arm. He stands in awe. King is now in panic. He rushes to the phone, hears no dial tone, then the stage directions tell us “he backs himself against the wall.” He is apparently at his wits end. He yells at Camae; “How do you know so much about me!?!? Who in the Hell are you? WHO IN THE HELL ARE YOU? The directions tell us that “Camae blows on the end of a cigarette. It lights up. King stands sunned. Looooong aaaaas beat.”
The stage lighting goes from white to lavender in order to suggest a dramatic shift in the story that Hall is telling. It play from now on takes an ironic twist. Camae tells King she is an angel “in the flesh.” King replies: “I’m not going to Hell am I?” To which Camae replies: “Naw. Naw. Naw. Heaven is where we headed…Believe you me I ain’t want this job. First day? Bring over you? The Kang? I ain’t wanna do it. But God been gettin’ these prayers from a littlun named Bunny.” Camae reveals that her role in King’s life is to transition King from the earthly plain to the spiritual plain. The Bunny Camae is referring to is Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter Bernice, who is a preacher based in Atlanta. King then talks about the fear he faces: “I have felt fear…My insides churned and I fought hard to keep them from leaping out of my mouth. You see, a Negro man is not safe in a pulpit. Not even in a pulpit of his own making. Sunday mornings have been the mornings when I am most afraid. Cause in this country a pulpit is a pedestal and we all know that in America, the tall tree is felled first. Tall trees have more wood to born, Camae. We are the sacrifice.” Hall is able to write a King that speaks in the customary metaphors of his memorable speeches. Tall trees are distinguished from other trees because they speak the truth in terms of denouncing imperialist projects, such as the anti-gay legislation that white Americans evangelicals push in Uganda. By typing himself as a “Negro,” preacher, Martin is also affirming Malcolm’s 1963 Message to the Grassroots by suggesting he would rather a Negro revolution than a Black one, which does not fundamentally change the structure, colonial relationship, nor wealth distribution in society, but simply allows more people of color access to it.
Hall shows a very mortal, very human struggle in King when he begins to resist her orders to go with her. Camae says: “Tomorrow. When it time, you gone have to take my hand.” To this King replies: “Tomorrow? But I’m not ready to die.” King fights Camae and God, in order to finish the speech that he quoted at the beginning of this play: “Well, I gots to finish my sermon and I need to be alone to finish my sermon so…you gone have to fly on away.” Camae replies: “Preacher Kang, now you/ gone have to put that down.” To this King issues a reply that George Jackson himself would have made about the inhumanity of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam: “A country that sends its boys to bathe little-bitty brown babies in the blood of our green is headed for a crossroads of conscience.” While he writes and delivers more lines from he wants to be his next sermon, Camae interrupts at each line, once saying: “Preacher Kang, you makin’ my job harder.” Then King replies: “Hard on YOU? What about it bein’ hard on me? On my family? On Corrie? On the movement? HAS GOD THOUGHT ABOUT THAT? [caps in Hall’s original]” Here we see the very real personal battle King has with his own mortality. This is perhaps what makes Samuel L. Jackson’s performance so powerful. As an audience member, I am able to witness and appreciate the very personal struggle King has with leaving his work so soon, leaving his family so soon, leaving the struggle for racial justice so soon. He tells Camae: “We still got work to do. I got more sermons in me, more goals, more…plans!...I wanna make this one a reality! The plan. It’s all in the works. It’s called the Poor People’s Campaign!” After Camae sits and listens to King’s plan to have a poor people’s march on the Washington mall, she says: “Yo men’ll carry it on.” King says: “But I’m the leader of this movement. The head of the body.” To this Camae says: “Well, the body will just have to grow another head ‘cause Memphis is the end of the road for you.” After appealing to her by trying to convince Camae of the importance of his plans, King tries another direction. He points to the plight of society and makes incredibly important connections between the U.S. occupation of peoples of color around the world and the colonized condition of American Blacks inside the U.S.: “how can we fight the war in Vietnam but not the wars against Negroes in our streets? How can we try to put a man on the moon, but not feed starving children in Mississippi? There’s just so much I gotta do. So much I haven’t yet accomplished. So much…I GOTTA FINISH WHAT I STARTED!!” This connection King makes between the oppressed peoples of Vietnam and those in the U.S. is a crucially important one that George Jackson refers to in his June 4, 1970 letter to Angela Davis:
“Do you know the secret police go to great lengths to murder and consequently silence every effective Black person the moment he attempts to explain to the ghetto that our problems are historically and strategically tied to the problems of all colonial people? This means that they are watching you closely…Its no coincidence that Malcolm X and M.L. King died when they did. Malcolm X had just put it together…I seriously believe King knew all along but was holding out and presenting the truth in such a way that it would affect the most people situationally without getting them damaged by gunfire. You remember what was on his [King’s] lips when he died. Vietnam and economics, political economy.”
Katori Hall shows us that this indeed is what was on King’s lips: making connections between the oppressed people in Vietnam to the oppressed people in the cities of the U.S. Despite the power of this important anti-imperialist ambition, Camae, convinces King that her ambition of taking King from the human plane to the spiritual plane is more important. King then says he because he’s had the favor of God this far, that he should be allowed to stay longer instead of leaving the human plane with Camae. Camae agrees: “I done read yo’ blessings file. It bigger than yo’ FBI file and bigga than the Bible. I know it might be hard for you to leave this life…yo family…and all yo plans. But you gone have to pass off that baton little man. You in a relay race, albeit the fastest runner we done ever seen’t. But you ‘bout to burn out, super star. You gone need to pass off that baton…” King still resists. Camae calls, what the directions tell us “a really long phone number.” She first talks to “St. Augustine” and asks him to speak to God, we discover that Hall has genderized God: “What She doing? [Hall capitalizes the “s” in “she”].” Based on the audience’s reaction, this looks like a comic relief of the show. Hall is playing with the audience’s reverence and respectability of God. On one hand Hall challenges the idea that God is so far above that he does not care nor know about the details and inner workings of each of our lives. On the other hand, Hall is supporting the idea that God is compassionate and can take any form, including the form of a Black woman with an attitude who intends to teach humility to an articulate prophet in a Martin Luther King Jr. When Camae tells King that St. Augustine is going to get “her,” God, on the cell, King shows his 1968 sensibilities and asks what a “cell” is. Camae says “it’s like…a phone that ain’t got no cord.” When God comes on the line to speak to Camae, she tells God: “Well, there’s a bit of a problem. He say he ain’t ready. That what I told him. I know…I know…I KNOW.” When Camae gives the phone to King to speak to God, King says:
“you don’t sound like I thought you’d sound. No, no, no. Pardon me, if that offends. I like how you sound. Kinda like my grandmamma…You see I have always listened to you, honored your word, lived by your word…(he lowers his voice) for the most part (raises it back to normal) God, please don’t strike me down for asking this, but…I want to live. I have plans. Lots of plans in my head and in my heart and my people need me. They need me. And I need to see them to the Promised Land. I know that’s not what I said earlier tonight, I know, but…I wasn’t lying exactly (he looks at Camae) I just didn’t know she was comin’ so, so…soon…There have been many a nights when I have held my tongue when it came to You. But not tonight, NOT TONIGHT. I have continuously put my life on the line, gave it all up. Gave it all up for You and Your word. You told me, that I’d be safe. Safe in your arms. You protected me all this time, all this time! Glued a pair of wings to my back, but now that I’ve flown too close to the sun I’m falling into the ocean of death. God how dare you take me now. NOW! I beg of you. I plead—God? Ma’am? God?”
Long heavy silence.
Camae asks King what God said and King said he thinks she hung up. Apparently Hall’s God is not ready to hear or condone non compliance with King. King concluded: “God hung up on me. She forsook her servant.” Camae replies: “She ain’t forsake you neither. She just ain’t wanna hear yo shit. She got the right. She is God, ya know?” King and Camae descend into a playful pillowfight. Here we see what an hour within a room does for physical intimacy between King and Camae. The directions tell us: “he finally somehow pins Camae onto her back. He is on top of her. They stop. Gazing into each other’s eyes. Out of breath. A bit sweaty.” King soon says to Camae: “Hold me.” The next stage directions tell us: “Beat. King’s eyes well with tears and this strong grown man dissolves into the child no one ever saw. He slides down on top of her. Crying. Crying his heart out. Sobbing. And Camae holds him. And rubs his back as if he were a child.” Here King seems to realize his own mortality at this moment. Especially when he tells Camae: “I never wanted to do this. I just wanted to be a minister in my small church.” We know this is true, especially from Timothy Tyson’s biography of Robert F. Williams, which tells us that E.D. Nixon was largely responsible for recruiting Martin Luther King to preach at the Montgomery Bus Boycott (116). Camae shows an understanding of this however tells King clearly: “when your maker calls you, you must heed the call.” To this King says: “I just wanted to be a minister. That was enough. That was enough…” Camae replies: “But God had bigger plans for you.” When King asks why him, Camae says to him: “why not you?” King then tries to do all important things in his mind that he deems important, from leaving his men instructions to calling his wife. He starts going over in his mind all the things that he thought he should have done to be a better father or a better husband. This is perhaps my favorite part of the play. Because you see the powerful within the most personal thoughts of King that Hall imagines. Camae consoles him: “you did what you had to do. We needed you. The world needed you.” King is moved by his doubts: “I don’t know for what! I’ve sacrificed my marriage, my family. My health, for what?” Camae then calls King a saint but he does not accept the title and says that if Camae is an angel, then “God must ‘a been impressed with how you’ve lived your life.” Camae said that no, God wasn’t. We then get a beautiful monologue, by the end of which not only is the actress Angela Bassett crying, but so is some audience members. We now discover how Camae gets to the place where she is at the moment now, of having to take Dr. King to the other side:
“I’ve cursed. But what I’m ashamed of most is I’ve hated. Hated myself. Sacrificed my flesh so that others might feel whole again. I thought it was my duty. All that I had to offer this world. What else was a poor Black woman, the mule of the world, here for? Last night, in the back of a alley I breathed my last breath. A man clasped his hands like a necklace ‘round my throat. I stared into his big blue yes, as my breath got ragged and raw and I saw the Hell this old world had put him through. The time he saw his father hang a man. The time he saw his mother raped. I felt so sorry for him. I saw what the world had done to him, and I still couldn’t forgive. I hated him for stealing my breath. When I passed on to the other side…I was just a cryin’ weepin’ at her feet. Beggin’ her not to throw me down. All that sinnin’. All that grime on my soul. All that hatred in my heart. But then I looked up and saw that She was smilin’ down at me. She opened her mouth, and silence came out. But I heard her loud and clear. ‘I got a special task for you and if you complete it, all your sins will be washed away. I opened my file. And I saw my task was you. What could little old me, give to big old you? I thought you was gone be perfect. Well, you ain’t, but then you are. You have the biggest heart I done ever knownt. You have the strength to love those who could never love you back. If I had just a small fraction of love you have for this world, then maybe, just maybe I could become half the angel you are” (65).
King then asks Camae whether he will die at the at the hands of a white man too, and she says: “yes. Speak by love. Die by hate.” Hall speaks to the ways that individuals allow themselves to be used by mercenaries to carry out hateful acts of murder, the way Camae’s murderer did. Memphis citizen Olivia Castling, who heard the fatal shot that killed King and witnessed the escape by the murderer said that the man she saw running from the scene of the crime was NOT James Earl Ray, “because the gentleman [she] saw was heavier than Ray” (DiEugenio, ed., 492). While Hall’s play does not challenge the mainstream narrative we get about King’s murder committed by James Earl Ray, it does raise issues about how King’s murder was motivated by hate. James W. Douglass’ investigative work challenges this mainstream narrative particularly in his article “The King Conspiracy Exposed in Memphis.” He writes that in December 1999, a Memphis jury concluded that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a conspiracy that involved a Memphis bar and grill owner named Loyd Jowers and “others including governmental agencies” (479). Jowers said that he had been asked to help in the murder of King and was told that there would be a decoy in the plot. The decoy was apparently James Earl Ray. Jowers said that the man who asked him to help in the murder was a Mafia connected produce dealer named Frank Liberto. Liberto had a courier deliver $10,000 for Jowers to hold at his restaurant…Jowers said he was visited the day before by a man named Raul, who brought a rifle in a box. Douglass quotes Lavada Addison who said that Liberto told her that he “had Martin Luther King killed.” Jowers said that the meetings to plan the assassination happened at Jim’s Grill. The planners included undercover Memphis Police Department officer Marrell McCullough, who is African American. According to witness Coby Vernon Smith, McCullough had infiltrated a Memphis community organizing group, the Invaders, which was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Andrew Young, who witnessed the assassination, can be heard on tape identifying McCullough as the man kneeling beside King’s body on the balcony in a famous photograph. Later in the April 4, 1970 letter to his lawyer, George Jackson writes:
“We are so confused, so foolishly simple that we not only fail to distinguish what is generally right and what is wrong, but we also fail to appreciate what is good and not good for us in very personal matters concerning the Black colony and its liberation. The ominous government economic agency whose only clear motive is to further enslave, number, and spy on us, the Black agency subsidized by the government to infiltrate us and retard liberation, is accepted, and by some, even invited and welcome, while the Black Panther is avoided and hard pressed to find protection among the people.”
According to Douglass’ investigation, the Black agency subsidized in this case appears to be the Memphis based Invaders group, through which the larger government agency was able to send McCullough, and direct McCullough to direct King to be in the right position to be shot on April 4, 1968. By Jackson’s standard, McCullough is definitely one of those who are “so foolishly simple” that he failed to distinguish what is generally right and wrong. By participating in the killing of King, McCullough provides truth to Camae’s claim to King that he would die by hate.
A more interesting story I think would be a play exploring the motives and spiritual forces behind those who assassinated King himself. Because then audiences can be prepared an important way to fight those forces which seem to dominate this world. James Douglass interviewed an FBI agent Donald Wilson who said that “H.L. Hunt, an influential Dallas oil billionaire had been a friend of J. Edgar Hoover since the early 1950s. Both men hated Martin Luther King…Hoover argued that the only way to stop King would be to ‘completely silence’ him. After King’s murder, Hunt told Curington [his chief aide] that Hoover had won the argument” (486). George Jackson writes in Blood In My Eye that that “the ruling class in the U.S. is composed of one million men and their families—the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Mellons, Du Ponts, Hunts and Gettys, Fords and their minions and dependents. They use ivy league universities and elite law schools as private schools for their offspring and as training grounds for their corporate hirelings. They rule with iron precision through the military, the C.I.A., the F.B.I., private foundations and financial institutions. Their control of all the media of education and communication comprises an extremely effective system of thought control” (Jackson, 169-70). David Murphy in King’s 1999 Memphis trial said that his close friend J.D. Hill had confessed to him that he had been a member of an Army Sniper team in Memphis assigned to “an unknown target” on April 4th. A lot of what George Jackson has written, even while he was in prison, about the death of Martin Luther King, has panned out to be true. King’s prophetic anti-imperialist message was threatening the wealth expropriated by Hunt through white racist violence of indigenous people. Therefore, the powers that be, namely Hunt, wanted King dead and that’s what they got. The powers that be including Hunt also got an extraordinary narrative to cover up the truth behind the murder of King.
Hall’s play teaches us that Martin Luther King, Jr. took his death in a brave way that teaches all of us about the importance of humility regarding our own mortality. Hall’s play also exposes the white racist violence motivated by a hatred that wishes to continue white racist violence by killing Blacks who resist the white supremacist system and leaving alive only those who will happily work within it. The 1999 case in Memphis which rightfully concluded that King was killed by a government conspiracy was in effect carried out in a way that George Jackson accurately articulated no less than two years after King’s actual murder: “with iron precision through the military.” In an April 11, 1968 letter to his father George Jackson wrote about King:
“I never really disliked him as a man…It is just as a leader of Black thought that I disagreed with him. The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative. The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage…The Kings, Wilkinses, and Youngs exhort us to ‘put away your knives, put away your arms, and clothe yourselves in the breastplate of righteousness’ and ‘turn the other cheek to prove our capacity to endure, to love.’ Well, that is good for them perhaps but I most certainly need both sides of my head.”
In a later 12/28/69 letter to his brother Jonathan, Jackson rejects belief in “backward stuff about God…It is a labored, mindless attempt to explain away ignorance, a tool to keep people of low mentality and no means of production in line…a thing for imbeciles and only women and, of course, Negroes.” Hall’s play certainly rejects this. Hall’s play assumes a knowledge and respect for a God who has finite time for each of us to be on this planet. Both works make important analyses about the times in which we live. Hall’s play encourages to accept our own mortality whereas Jackson’s letters encourages to fight very hard to make that mortality meaningful for the rest of humanity. We cannot simply assume and condone white racist violence.
The play ends with King eventually getting his wish of seeing the Promised Land, up on the Mountaintop. In his April 3, 1968 sermon King says “I may not make it there with you.” But in Hall’s play, we as the audience go exactly there with him and it is Camae who tells us as a refrain at the end of each stanza that: “the baton passes on.” Hall imaginatively creates the Promised Land, this Mountaintop, “made of the dreams of men and women who have paid the ultimate price with their lives.” Hall addresses directly young people of color within the Negro revolution producing-Broadway audience when she has King say: “The children of Nile you must rise, as you can no longer walk weary through this world with willowed backs. Your time is now, I tell you NOW!!!” This resonates with Judge Joe Brown’s remarks made in 1998. Brown ruled on the case of the King murder in Memphis in the mid nineties. This is the same Judge Joe Brown with a television show, who concluded that the cartridge case that the state claims killed King, actually didn’t. Brown said: “The reason we must go forward and resolve this murder is for the children…to protect this new generation from this type of response by the system we must expose” (DiEugenio, ed., 470). Hall’s play aims to empower young people by showing the dear sacrifices, the dear personal costs one must give up in order to fearlessly speak truth to power. At the end of Hall’s play, King is at the mountaintop imploring young people to come by “passing the baton.” The baton represents continuing the anti-imperialist cause. We continue King’s message by speaking out against a nation that chooses spiritual death by choosing to spend more on military programs than on programs of social uplift. It also includes not paying homage to the ways in which this anti-imperialist message is watered down by the corporate powers that be that erect monuments. These monuments distract us from fulfilling King’s message of opposing military interventions at the cost of “starving children” in the United States. These corporations like GE, Bank of America, JP Morgan and others believe they could advance their imperial agenda and pay homage to King by erecting a monument all at the same time. A close examination of King’s life, Hall’s play and George Jackson’s letters tell us this is not true: we cannot avoid the terror that waits us while we continue an imperialist path. We cannot avoid it by erecting monuments without addressing the root cause that King died. We can only address this by ending all military occupations in foreign countries.
King fought for sanitation workers, but his life and death also allowed the place for many Negroes to enter public office and higher education. He was a martyr of the Negro revolution. Katori Hall tells us he was brave because he boldly, consciously decided to accept the end of the task that God called him to. He was choosing to trust God to in fact to have vengeance in God’s way, and not his own way. This is an important lesson. However this Negro revolution we’ve seen since his death has still fell short of Malcolm X’s Black revolution that would have opened the door for meaningful change that both worked towards. Since King’s death, the powers-that-be like Hunt have propagandized their mainstream narratives about Malcolm X and King, and have continued their path, in King’s prophetic words “to hell.” Each of us must decide which role we will play on this path. –RF.
The completion of this review was made possible by many. Originally, Cynthia McKinney for mentioning James DiEugenio to me on August 26th of this year. Kim Holder for mentioning the importance of George Jackson’s writings to me on October 14th of this year. And for Chelsea Nachman for the opportunity on October 22nd to see and read Katori Hall’s play.
James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.
James DiEugenio and Lisa Peace, eds. The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X. Introduction by Judge Joe Brown. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003.
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Introduction by Jean Genet. New York: Bantam, 1970.
George L. Jackson, Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990.