note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Larry Stark
This is apparently the last day of BLACK HISTORY MONTH --- and now America can get back to Business As Usual on the racial front. I think, as an idea, it is great: it lends a largely discriminated-against segment of America a serious sense of personal dignity; it allows lectures and events to emphasize where we were and where we hope to go; and it allows Black playwrights and Black actors a shot at main-stages across the country. A great idea, full of potential, but --- at least on stages here in Boston --- one that's pretty shabby in execution.
Over the years, I have seen far too many of what have become obligatory Black plays early every year that are Just Black, with hardly any other way of distinguishing themselves. Yes, they are about Black History, but much too often they are, even when portraying real events or real conditions, full of bloodless historical stereotypes and too few real-people characters. The results much too often resemble a wax-works more than life.
There are often brilliant exceptions --- SpeakEasy Stage's "The Color Purple", New Rep's "Yellowman", or Huntington Stage's "Raisin in The Sun" and the Huntington's commitment to the cycle of August Wilson's plays --- but peppered with mistakes like the creaking old "Look Who's Coming to Dinner" or "The Colored Museum" done by that same Huntingon Stage Company; like a play called "The Whipping Man" that had perhaps a real historically factual Civil War Black befriended by a Jew who had him participate in a seder --- Two Minorities for the price of one! --- or years ago one whose title says it all: "No Dogs, No Niggers, No Jews". There was a good production of "The Mountaintop" by the Underground Railway, an interesting play at The Lyric Stage called "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" and a Black parody of "Steel Magnolias" called "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" there in which a cast of Black women were encouraged to "play funny" and "indicate" all over the place. This year, Underground Railway did "The Convert" set in Zimbabwe in 1895, in which seven good Black actors were encouraged to shout at one another for two full acts.
Theatrically, Black History Month has been, to put it kindly, a mixed bag.
For most of these plays, History was enough; in a lot of them, art wasn't.
I'm saying this because, night before last, I saw a play that did exactly the reverse --- and blew everything else right out of the water. It was closing night, but Kirsten Greenidge's "Baltimore" talked about Contemporary prejudice of every sort in unforgettably new ways. At the heart of the play, one college freshman has to say to her best friend "When you look at me, what do you see?" She is a Korean talking to another freshman --- a Black woman.
As with most of Greenidge's plays these days (like the Huntington's "Milk Like Sugar"), "Baltimore" is an explosion of ideas spraying intellectual shrapnel in all directions, and nothing is what it seems. In this freshman class there's a Latino (" 'Hispanic' is a White word!"), a White ("In my Black neighborhood they called my blonde hair 'Snowball'; I learned to laugh at that; why can't they?"), a militant Black Woman and a crushed, insulted Black woman; a Black jock; a Gay Man ("My grandmother is Chinese --- from China!"); a Black woman "observer"; and the new Black Dean trying to hold the whole explosion together. There are toe-to-toe arguments, self-aware monologues, free-for-all discussions, confessions, personal histories, and throughout it all a learning-curve for everyone.
It ain't no "obligatory Black Play".
But it is probabaly the best damn play I will see all year.
And though this co-operative production by New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performances has closed, I am certain it will be seen, I hope across America, often, in the future. It is exactly the kind of experience that can save Black History Month from the knee-jerk stereotypes of the past.