An Inglorious Excursion | Letters | Chicago Reader

An Inglorious Excursion 

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It was gratifying to read Adam Langer's insightful review of the Goodman Theatre's production of Charles Smith's Black Star Line [February 2], confirming that we, at least, in contrast with the lack of interrogation from the Chicago dailies, had both witnessed the same missed opportunity for an enlightened inquiry into the complexity of Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa Movement in the 20s.

Were it not for Garvey's significance to black struggle in America, the play could easily be dismissed, avoiding the risk of too much protestation that might dignify the work and bring, perhaps, unworthy attention to an undistinguished and totally uninspired narrative.

While it is generally accepted, in the spirit of artistic freedom, that an author should be allowed to have the creative license to reinterpret history from his personal point of reference, the manufacturing of lies is wholly unacceptable. It is imperative that the author aspires to raise his inquiry to at least the level of the historical event, as opposed to bringing history down to the knee-jerk level of personal experience, trivializing the collective experience of African-Americans with uninformed distortions.

Marcus Garvey's messianic mission to create a homeland for the 400,000,000 black people in Africa was a monumental challenge to the European colonialization of Africa and the oppression of blacks in a racist social system of American apartheid. Invariably, the strength and unwavering audacity of his uncompromising opposition to white supremacy was viewed, by most whites in America, as a threat to white privilege, and caused alarm among assimilationist blacks who viewed the separatist movement as an obstruction to their efforts to achieve a new social order through integration. Much of what has been documented in the play as fact, speciously orchestrated to give the allusion of truth, deals with issues peripheral to the higher aspirations of the Garvey Movement. Rather than identify the nationalist issues--not to be confused with revisiting the cliched sociology of the downtrodden Negro--that captured the imagination of more than 2 million, out of a population of 10 million, African-Americans who had been dues-paying members in the UNIA, the author chose to graft the petty issues of his personal concerns onto Garvey, creating a racial soap opera that assigns critical roles of influence on the demise of the movement to black preoccupation with hair-straightener pomades and skin-lightener creams. Certainly, a cavalier and distorted view of an Israeli icon would be considered intolerable to the survivors of the Holocaust and provoke an unconditional demand for more rigorous standards in the interpretation of Jewish history, if not otherwise vitriolic outrage. Should less be expected from the descendants of the Middle Passage who were forced into oppressive labor in this country for 400 years?

Charles Smith, however, is not the principal concern here. Mr. Smith is merely a local black dramatist who is willing to burlesque the black experience for the sake of winning approval and acceptance within a Chicago, mainstream cultural institution. Black Star Line belongs to a tradition in the American theater, from minstrelsy through the plays of Eugene O'Neill, which routinely subordinated black roles to stereotypic characterizations that corresponded with inferior or crudely developed sensibilities--immersed in violence, sexual aggression, and self-deprecation--that preserved for whites a comfortable sense of superiority. It is not uncommon to discover racial ambivalence among some blacks today who seek a reconciliation with white institutions by pandering to the views and social persuasion acceptable to whites. That the Goodman Theatre would encourage such an ill-advised misadventure is what should concern us most.

At issue here, then, are large institutions and large monies made available by large foundations to produce palatable representations of black experience for a subscriber-based audience which is largely white. It is a dilemma that is pervasive throughout the entire country where large regional theaters are funded by foundations such as the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest with dollars in the millions to expand their subscriber base beyond the traditional white patronage by developing works for what has been euphemistically called "new" audiences, usually black or other minorities. Most black theater companies nationally, save one or two, do not have operating budgets large enough to qualify for such large grants. Thus, the limitations of their financial resources often restrict their ability to mount large-scale expressions of authentic black experience typified by the work of August Wilson. The alarming results, as evidenced throughout the country, are the liberties taken by large institutions in the "black spot" of their seasons--Black History Month--when they trot out onto their stages gratuitous, if not otherwise fraudulent, fabrications of black experience which are served to the "new" audience with impunity.

Typical of the national trend to mount plays without the slightest critical estimation of how the works reflect the realities of black audiences is the celebrated production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation at New York's Lincoln Center Repertory, a work which revealed, in spite of its gilded stylization, the transparently racist notion that blacks have a primal urge to be like whites, but when they cross the social plane of white reality, chaos and destruction ensue. Equally obtuse, though benignly offensive, was the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Company's development of Nomathemba, a musical fable concocted by a German director, Eric Simonson, that employed the distinguished voice of Ntozake Shange to craft dialogue that would legitimize a misguided romantic vision of "hope" for two young, black lovers in apartheid South Africa whose singular obstacle to survival during their city sojourn is the black community. Similarly, in Atlanta, Kenny Leon, the Alliance Theater's black artistic director, felt compelled to develop Miss Ever's Boys, a work written by a white physician, David Feldshuh, which deceitfully places the onus of 40 years of government-sponsored, untreated, syphilis experiments performed on black farm laborers in Alabama squarely on the shoulders of the black nurse. And shielded under the protections of academic freedom and the privilege of the First Amendment is Peter Grego, a white professor whose research through the massive documentation of painful slave narratives has resulted in his spurious invention of Hating to See Sunrise, a stage adaptation that proffers to the world a point of view that life on the plantation had been better, certainly more secure, than the unpredictability of independence found in freedom.

Who, then, is responsible for such derelict and arbitrary regard of African-American history? While Charles Smith is the messenger of a misguided denigration of Garvey, the Goodman Theatre, as producer, has paternalistically nurtured, endorsed, and delivered the message to its "new" audience, thus cannot elude its responsibility for cultivating an uninformed work that is indifferent to the verities of black struggle in America, serving only to alienate the "new" audience even greater from the traditional white patronage, perpetuating a condition, ironically, that the Lila Wallace Fund had intended to remedy. The black experience is more than an opportunity to titillate the traditionally white patronage of large institutions with annual peeks under the scab covering the yet unhealed wounds of black oppression.

Clearly, as the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March revealed, while blacks and whites in America apparently share a common history, it is experienced differently and thus viewed from opposite psychic poles of reality. The message of Black Star Line rings hollow largely because the author finds himself straddling a racial chasm between blacks and whites, uncertain how to reconcile the division without offending either side. As the final scenes mercifully bring closure on the uneventful excursion, it becomes apparent that the play is not really about the character Garvey, who had generated little, if any, empathy as he is ushered offstage a broken, defeated shell of a man. The moment is followed by an epilogue which has two men seated next to each other on a crowded train: one black, the other white. The black has purchased a ticket without any particular destination. The white, having purchased a ticket with a specific destination, informs the black that the train is going to California. They mutually agree that wherever the train is going in this vast land, they at least would be going there together. In the final analysis, Garvey's monumental vision of black self-reliance had been calculatingly held hostage to the supine inquiry of Rodney King: "Can't we all just get along?" Some may view the author's attempt to bridge the great racial divide by rescuing whites from feelings of guilt about past and present slings and arrows of outrageous fortune suffered by blacks, as noble assignation. Perhaps, but not at the expense of disfiguring history so that Garvey's prodigious opposition to the forces of oppression is reduced to an exotic entertainment.

Paul Carter Harrison

Columbia College

Chicago

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