Sitting in a dark theater cut off from a bright February afternoon on East Campus, scraggly freshmen and earnest adults aren't sure what they're in for. The white audience members look at their blue tickets and then glance over to the white stubs in the hands of the black people next to them. Then they look back at their blue tickets. They may not realize it yet, but they will be more than just spectators for this Sunday performance of Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show.
The play is ostensibly a nonlinear story of a black man on trial for being a traitor to his race. But the all-black cast disrupts it with improvisation that is designed to get in the audience's face--literally.
A character named Village calls a white woman up to the stage to quiz her on three relatively straightforward questions about black history. When she fails to answer any of them correctly, Village screams at her to get on her knees and crawl around like a shackled slave. The woman holds back tears as she crouches down. The audience is frozen and can only manage a gasp.
Yet images of slavery and the black-white dichotomy don't dominate the play. Instead, the issue of race merely becomes the conduit for Genet's 1960 commentary on power and corruption. The black members of the audience, in their own moment of powerlessness, are called on to identify themselves by standing up; they are then forced to remain standing for a full minute. A cell phone bursts out ringing from the back of the theater. One of the actors on stage halts the production, steps forward, and threatens to kick the viewer out of the theater. Twenty minutes later, someone else's phone blings and dings, and the actor jumps off stage and escorts the audience member to the door, only to back off at the last minute, saying, "Well, I guess you can stay."
Two onlookers have had enough and don't stay. That comes as no surprise to directors Mary Adkins, a senior who is white, and Amy Eason, a senior who is African American. The two had seen a performance of The Blacks last spring while participating in Duke's Leadership and the Arts program in New York. The cast of that show was similarly confrontational, pounding away at audience members for their (assumed) racism. Adkins was particularly offended when one of the New York actors made her and the other white women in the theater shout that they shift their handbags to the other side of the sidewalk when they pass a black man. "I got really pissed off, because I don't do that," Adkins says. "But if you allow that anger to become empathy, and then allow that to become an awareness of what it's like not to have power, it makes you be a lot more careful in the way you treat a lot of people."
Anticipating their Duke audience to be equally "pissed off" and confused, Adkins, Eason, and the cast members provide an explanatory "talkback" with the audience immediately after the curtain for each performance, spending almost as much time explaining Genet's convoluted work as drying any tears. And once the puzzled and the awakened alike are finally let out of the small black-box theater, some make their way to a forum with a trio of Duke experts who try to articulate just how a few dozen spectators became utterly powerless for an entire two hours.
"There's this idea of the fourth wall, and then we get there and look at one another and, 'What's this?' It's like, 'Catch!' " says Leon Dunkley, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, flinging his arms open at his listeners. "You have to show up, and God forbid your cell phone goes off! We are here, and we are present in the play in a way that we're usually not in with plays in general.
"So I was wondering, in a play like The Blacks, why it is that we don't need a narrative? Why is it for two hours we can sit in a theater, be forced in and out of time with one another, and we were rapt, we were engaged? So much so, that after two hours of play and a half hour of downtime, we're still talking. After the play is over, the directors come out and are like, 'Here's what the play's about.' So I think that that's interesting, and I think that calls us on where we are and who we are."
June 1, 2004