On stage, black character paradise often comes at a price

In Soft, Donja R. Love’s moving new play at MCC Theater, a teenager wonders where black boys go when they die. In the end, the audience gets the answer: a flower-covered oasis where black boys can really be themselves.

The play is mainly set in a classroom at a boarding school for problem children; Mr. Isaiah, a young English teacher who has his own history with the law, is trying to reach the six black and brown students in his classroom so they don’t get lost in the system, a likelihood his boss sees as inevitable.

Love’s play is one of several recent Off-Broadway productions in which redemption comes at the end of stories about black oppression in contemporary society. The works share a familiar structure that serves as a sort of urban parable about how the educational system and other institutions can sabotage and trap people of color.

In trying to get their characters to overcome these adversities, playwrights often face the same narrative hurdle: How can these stories end? What does liberation look like in a world where the odds are stacked against these black characters, and at a time when post-Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd artists are being re-credited for representing blackness responsibly?

There appear to be three variations of the end of liberation: transcendence through death into a heaven or paradise; escape from an institution; or a self-aware meta-narrative pivot. However, each can have its pitfalls. The first can come across as an idealization of death and is another example of black tragedy being made into a beautiful spectacle. The other two – an escape or a narrative pivot – can be seen as ways for the work to sidestep the grim realities of how Black people are treated in our society.

But what about the kind of deliverance that best serves the story while also reflecting our reality?

Flowers are a prominent motif in “Soft”: a student draws them in his notebook and on his writing assignments; Petals fall from the ceiling like a gentle rain on the heads of the audience; and they frame the stage for the entire show.

At the end, in a gesture reminiscent of the final moments in Jackie Sibblie’s Drury’s Fairview and Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down (which was co-directed with Whitney White’s Soft), the Black and brown viewers are singled out; They are asked to stand up so they can receive a bouquet of flowers from a dead black boy now living in this Eden. The feeling is beautiful – a reminder to black viewers to celebrate their own softness and vulnerability.

When I attended the show (which is scheduled to run at the MCC until July 10th), several people walked away crying. I was touched, but also sad. Ultimately, despite the beauty of the show, it was another story that ended with the deaths of black people. Maybe part of the beauty is the loss; the flowers suggest an ephemeral grace.

Is there a version of Black Paradise that isn’t starred – a major disaster, mishap, or even death?

A similar question came to my mind last year while watching the Broadway production of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over. This Waiting for Godot-inspired play about racial and police brutality ends with a black man suddenly endowed with godlike power wandering into a lush garden paradise, but only after absolving and allowing a white man of his sins to venture there First.

Nwandu has spoken about the changes she made at the end of the play because there is no easy conclusion to a story about an enduring reality in America. Unfortunately, the play’s new ending seemed to unwittingly suggest that black liberation can only come, if at all, after the absolution of the white oppressors; Even when a black character has finally found agency, he still comes second to paradise.

Liberation is a happy retreat for lovers in Mansa Ra’s “…What the End Will Be,” a Roundabout Theater Company production, which runs on stage through July 10 at the Laura Pels Theater. The play takes us into a home of three generations of gay black men: the eldest, Bartholomew, a widower who lived with his male partner after the death of his wife, is now ill and shares a home with his son Maxwell, an uptight, confident man. hating careerist with a violent streak; and Maxwell’s withdrawn teenage son Tony, an athlete with a flamboyant boyfriend. With virtually no plot or character development, “…What the End Will Be” stumbles toward a moment of redemption, but once again the price is a black man’s life.

Bartholomew struggles through his painful final days with bone cancer, all the while hallucinating an image of his late partner placing sunflowers throughout the set. The play martyrs its gay black elder and offers him deliverance from death, as if ‘burying the gay’ isn’t still a prominent — and troubled — theme in entertainment and culture today.

And to make matters worse, Bartholomew’s death becomes a perfect lesson for his son and grandson, helping them to relate to one another and re-accept a version of their weirdness. The dying black man becomes a symbol of family ties, gay love and self-acceptance – his death grants salvation to the other characters.

In any case, death is only a mode of escape. In Dave Harris’ “Exception to the Rule,” a classroom of incarcerated Black students literally looks for an escape, thanks to the addition of a clunky metaphor about the failure of the education system and school-to-prison pipeline.

The students, all black and stuck on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, bicker, gossip and wonder where their conspicuously absent detention teacher is; After all, you can’t leave without his permission. The student who is out of place in this sober incarceration allegory is the overzealous Erika, who is judged and ridiculed for her “good girl” behavior until she finally launches a patronizing tirade criticizing her classmates for it that they are not working hard enough and not changing the code. don’t follow the rules to climb out of the broken system they’re trapped in.

Ultimately, Erika is the only one who escapes detention, and the others are probably stuck in this limbo. But the take away is unclear. Should we commend Erika for her anti-blackness, her privilege, her maneuvers from Uncle Tom? If not, then her escape feels oddly celebrated in the play (through June 26 at Roundabout’s Black Box Theater). Or that’s the most cynical ending imaginable.

James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham, which runs at the Public Theater through July 17, adapts and then breaks the story of Hamlet. Although Shakespeare’s original ends with almost everyone in a body bag, Ijame’s contemporary version challenges the notion that a story about black characters—particularly gay black characters—must necessarily end in tragedy.

The show’s avatars for Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes are all gay, despite the homophobia, gender stereotyping, and toxic masculinity that runs in their families. But these characters decide they’re not going to kill each other; You will not die today.

Her liberation—a sort of upbeat disco-drag cotillion—does two things: a challenge to expectations of tragedy within the play, and a hopeful confrontation with intolerance of gender expression, vulnerability, and sexuality outside of it. By consciously freeing himself from the trappings of Black Death tragedy and social narrative, Ijames grants his characters the ability to free themselves from the crushing institutions of hate that thrive around them.

On the one hand, you could get to the end of Fat Ham and see it as an easy way out, a way for the playwright to write the tragedy without just writing another black tragedy. You could say that the play’s ultimate redemption is just a kind of deus ex machina, a writer showing his hand to save his butt.

And yet, in the stylized, self-aware world of Fat Ham, the characters have the power to bring about change. They can see the world around them and the way they are oppressed and choose to call their paradise. They find their own liberation. They are more than victims, they are their own saviors.

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