Friday, July 20, 2012

On Directing Sonia Sanchez's play Dirty Hearts

It was an absolute honor to have directed Sonia Sanchez's play DIRTY HEARTS at the Adrienne Theater for four performances at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia from Friday July 13th to Sunday, July 15th. I was honored on several levels. First by the brevity and clarity of Professor Sanchez's poetic writing that is filled with as much strong political meaning as it is with rhythm. Second by the very dedicated cast who took their notes diligently and who gave their best in rehearsals and in their performances. I first got interested in this play after reading an interview Professor Sanchez had with Jacqueline Wood in Joyce Ann Joyce's edited collection in a book called "Conversations With Sonia Sanchez." Professor Sanchez told Jacqueline Wood that "its a play that looks at how men and women deal with each other in the midst of destructive attitudes twoards them" (139). In another interview with Joyce Ann Joyce in 2005, Professor Sanchez said that she has never seen Dirty Hearts performed (203). I read this in 2010. That same year, Duke University Press published an edited collection of Professor Sanchez's plays which gave me the opportunity to actually read the play Dirty Hearts. I read it and I absolutely fell in love with it. I loved its brevity and its clarity. I love how it shows in a simple way American racial hierarchy or hegemony. The play is basically a card game of hearts where the players represent members of wealth and power according to their race in American society. You have First Man and Second Man who represent white privilege and white power. They are at the top. You have Shigeko, a Hiroshima maiden who represents the immigrant experience but in Professor Sanchez's language in this play, Shigeko specifically represents the Japanese immigrant. She is in the middle. You have Carl, the Black capitalist and the main character of the play who is desperately trying to win in the metaphoric game of hearts in this game. Carl is at the bottom. You have the Poet who represents artists who balk at the game that First and Second Man rig to make sure that Carl never wins. They ensure that Carl never wins by giving him the Queen of Spades, which is the card with the highest value. Since the object of Hearts is to have the lowest hand, First Man and Second Man essentially conspire to ensure that Carl will get this card and never win the game. It is Carl's objective to win. He identifies himself to First Man as a Black capitalist and believes that by his being that, First Man and Second Man will let him win but they don't. The play's drama arises from Carl's fighting the role that First Man and Second Man have proscribed for him. As I said in my note in the program, the triumph of Carl is his refusal to play the rigged game that ensures that anybody Black who tries to play the game, which represents the American free market, will be made to feel like the loser. Upon giving Carl the Queen of Spades a third time in the play, First Man said: "I knew you weren't expecting it and I couldn't resist the temptation." This speaks to the sadist nature of white privilege and racist oppression that First Man exacts on Carl. Shigeko is a peacemaking character who strives to please First Man, but at the same time she moderates Carl's anger at how the game is rigged. In her explanation of the play, Jacqueline Wood said that the positioning of Shigeko and Carl against unnamed white male figures of determination and the play's indeterminate ending allows Sanchez to interrogate struggles which continue to confront oppressed peoples across American society. Even today. This is why I chose to direct this play at this time. I hoped that audiences see Carl's ultimate refusal to play the rigged game of the American free market and learn to reject similar outgrowths or structures in their own life. Each actor portrayed their character with a force and dedication that I am most appreciative of. Ben Shaw played First Man in a stern, powerful, agitated way that represented the arrogance I think Professor Sanchez intended. Thomas Foy played Second Man in a way that shunned and insulted every character except First Man. The stakes were high for him. He truly understood how our precious American society hinges on the attitudes of working whites and how intransigent their racism and disdain of nonwhite people must be. And he played this well. Yokko played Shigeko in a very careful and studied way. She made sure to study the interviews and lives of Hiroshima survivors and portray what Professor Sanchez intended. In our 7/11/12 rehearsal that Professor Sanchez showed up to, Professor Sanchez mentioned that Hiroshima maidens she met personally wore a veil to hide the scars caused by Hiroshima, and Yokko made sure to wear a veil. I could not ask for a more dedicated actress in Yokko. Elyse Emmerling played the Poet in a very studied way. Elyse was the first actress to learn all of her lines. This gave her more room to play with the Poet and really explore the Poet's nuances, mainly the Poet's unwillingness to play the game which elides her willingness to critique First and Second Man more thoroughly. I am grateful for and trusted Dax E. Richardson's interpretation of Carl, which saw the Poet as inspiration for his decision to stop playing the game which is cemented after the third time he plays the game. I liked the way Dax played Carl real soft at the beginning and then by the end of the play he is extra loud in order to give the audience some opportunity to feel for Carl and empathize with him. While Dax was talking, especially in the play's beginning, you could hear a pin drop in the last two performances, because he wanted to make sure the audience heard what he was saying. I liked that. I appreciated Leilani Macomber's interpretation of lighting for this show, mainly her note that she imagined a smoky room with lots of shadows. And her lighting of this play definitely showed that. We devised that the setting of this play is actually the backroom of a bar owned by First Man who is part of a connected family that used to run COINTELPRO. I thought that since this play was written in 1971, a lot of the murders of Black men who were trying to build independence FROM the white supremacist capitalist system, that the work of COINTELPRO was in the mind of Professor Sanchez when creating First and Second Man. This play more than anything is an EXPOSURE of white supremacy. And that is what motivated me to do it, especially seeing its increasing power under a Black president. First Man and Second Man are the most powerful and Carl and Shigeko are in a sense jockeying for power. It is possible that Shigeko in her playing hearts with First Man and Second Man either knowingly gives the Queen of Spades to Carl or to First Man who will give it to Carl. This conflict raises the real life conflict of Blacks and Black immigrants or immigrants who jockey each other for so called power or a seat on the Titanic. Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison have both commented on how the first word a European immigrant learns is "nigger" and how to get entree into American society by denigrating Black people. While Shigeko does not denigrate Black people, she asks Carl to play a game that she knows is rigged. One of the audience members, Thomas's mother, commented that Shigeko is at the bottom of this hierarchy that Sanchez has presented. I think that is a valid point of view. However I think ultimately that because Carl is always given the Queen of Spades that Carl is at the bottom of this racial hierarchy that immigrants are taught to abide by in order to, as Yokko said of Shigeko's motivation, survive. We had some powerful talkbacks and very meaningful reaction from audience members. One audience member, Bernard, in our very first performance on Friday night asked what are we going to do after leaving here, now that we know about this hierarchy. I thought that was the most important question of all the talkbacks we had. I said that what we should do is take steps to make sure that we carry out the phrase "We The People." This answer was Professor Sanchez's answer to my question of what she wanted audiences to get out of this play. As a cast we had the pleasure of having Professor Sanchez attend our July 11th rehearsal and talk to us afterwards about it, in the YouTube video below. Professor Sanchez said that First Man represents Wall Street, and that Shigeko moves to a Haiku way of life. About Carl, Professor Sanchez said that he can get so far, but "could only be just so much." When I asked her for real life examples of Carl, she said Bill Cosby and how his reviving NBC's ratings qualified his attempt to buy the network. But when he tried to buy it, other white males, First and Second Man types, conspired to ensure that he would not buy it. She said that is what made Cosby like Carl in that they will let him come to the table, but they will not let him come close to winning. I thought the way she shows this in the game is fascinating, especially since she said that the Queen of Spades represents the Black woman. Carl does not want the card that will make him lose, the card that she found to represent the Black woman. I think this is a profound artistic statement that Sanchez has made about the American free market system and how, the higher you go up in it, the more, for Black men, you have to deny your culture, your heritage by denying the Black woman. We discussed in our interview with Professor Sanchez, Bacon's Rebellion and how it became the origin of American hegemony, and Professor Sanchez said that "we are in this strange land together, we are all under the thumbs of these people." These people being the one person, or 0.1 percent. In addressing the question of how to combat racism after seeing this play, Professor Sanchez provided the same answer she gave her students: "you go home and teach them [your racist relatives] how to be human." I thought this was profound and a profound answer to Bernard's question. However for Black audience members who may not feel they have racist relatives, what do they do? I think this play more than anything provides the EXPOSURE of the system. Carl leaves the card game, but Professor Sanchez obviously leaves open the question of whether he kills himself or whether he disappears into the streets, perhaps later to join a system that will challenge what First and Second Man have set up. I would like to believe the latter. In fact that is what one audience member suggested. A woman with a green head wrap who I really wished I could have met before she left said that the only way to successful end the sadistic, racist control by First and Second Man is revolution. And I happen to agree. This is what the work of revolutionaries in Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean (Haitian and Cuban) have taught us. We have to be prepared mentally for that kind of work. Dirty Hearts is not a play that openly endorses revolution, Professor Sanchez leaves that question open for the audience to decide. But the last lines of the play by Second Man suggest a predatory approach to the audience: "who is left now but the sitters?" Second Man still seeks reconciliation even after Carl's anger at the game. Who is left to play the game? Professor Sanchez suggests we think about rejecting the game and make new rules. I was grateful to direct this play in this season of American presidents using the trope of "personal responsibility" to justify abolishing social services. These presidents are the proverbial Second Man doing the bidding of First Man. We have to decide whether we will reject the game like Carl did. -RF. Special thanks to Jos Duncan for recording and editing the video of Professor Sanchez. Thanks to DK Creative Group for the Dirty Hearts Logo and thanks to Len "Cruze" Webb for the flyer below the logo. And thank you to Daniel X Guy of the InterAct Theater Company for my renting of the Adrienne Theater where we had our rehearsals and performances.
From left to right: myself the director, Ben Shaw who played First Man, Thomas Foy who played Second Man, Professor Sonia Sanchez, Yokko who played Shigeko, Dax E. Richardson who played Carl, and Elyse Emmerling who played the Poet. Photo courtesy of Jos Duncan.