- Pessimism and the Age of Obama
In his play Carlyle (2016), Thomas Bradshaw resurrects and re-stages the 2012 encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. In real life, Zimmerman, a man of mixed German and Peruvian descent and a member of his gated community’s neighborhood watch, chose to misrecognize the unarmed African American teenager as a criminal. He confronted the boy, and shot and killed him; a murder that inspired a renewed national campaign to address the killings of African Americans. In Carlyle, the title character, an African American politician (a Republican), laments the deaths of black boys and men. Directly addressing the theatrical audience, he remembers Trayvon Martin. With actors playing the teenager and his assailant, Carlyle imagines an alternative version of the Zimmerman–Martin encounter, in which a gun-brandishing Zimmerman still stops the hoodie-wearing boy. In response, Martin whips out a gun and shoots Zimmerman. He walks away. Immediately following the scene (and as the attending theatrical audience variably gasps, laughs, or applauds), Carlyle offers his assessment: “This is what might have happened if we had a completely armed society.” He and his wife, Janine, drive the point home. She declares, “The reason that unarmed black men get shot all the time-... ” “is because they’re not armed,” Carlyle completes her thought.
Bradshaw is not alone. Other prominent contemporary theater artists have created works that address elevated racial tension and the appalling number of African Americans who have been gunned down. Unlike Bradshaw’s satire, their work aims to reflect mainstream responses to the senseless murders of black men and women. [End Page 854] New Black Fest, a New York City-based producing initiative and commons for black theater artists, commissioned (with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre) Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon Martin, Race and Privilege in 2013. The following year, New Black Fest created Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments in response to the death of Michael Brown. That series featured new works by Nathan James, Nathan Yungerberg, Idris Goodwin, Nambi Kelley, Glenn Gordon, Dennis Allen II, and Eric Holmes. In 2016, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, a suburban Chicago theater company, staged #LOVESTORIES: Inspired by Black Lives Matter, consisting of three short plays “explor[ing] the breadth of love in a world of deadly conflict,” penned by Gloria Bond Clunie, Marsha Estell, and Tania Richard. #LOVESTORIES premiered the weekend following the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winner Hamilton (2015), a hip-hop biography of colonial revolutionary Alexander Hamilton starring a mostly minority cast, seems to comment on the violence that targets people of color in the show’s most popular song, “My Shot.” As Hamilton raps, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory” and, later, “See, I never thought I’d live past twenty / Where I come from some get half as many.”
Black death and, more generally, suffering on stage is not new. From Henry Box Brown’s dramatic reenactment of his escape from slavery to Angelina Weld Grimké’s treatise on lynching in Rachel: A Play in Three Acts (1920) to James Baldwin’s meditation on racial violence during the civil rights movement era in Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) to innumerable references to racial struggle in August Wilson’s dramaturgy, the theatrical stage has long depicted the precarity of black existence. The loss of life haunts many of the most canonical texts in African American theater. Clay, the protagonist in Amiri Baraka’s Obie Award-winning play Dutchman (1967), is murdered on a subway and his body unceremoniously tossed from the car by masked, silent riders. The drama of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (1981) rests on identifying the murderer of a black sergeant among a group of enlisted black soldiers. Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2001) centers on an African American Lincoln impersonator whose job is to be assassinated, repeatedly. Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (2009) presents a human portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. only hours before his assassination.
What is new, or better yet, newly returned within contemporary drama is an abiding pessimism...