Barbra is a mother with a mission in Kevin R. Free’s cartoonish, cleverly convoluted and uncomfortable comedy, “Night of the Living N Word.” A daughter of the Confederacy who grew up on an island plantation off the coast of Georgia, Barbra refuses to allow her 17-year-old mixed-race son Channing to use the racial epithet, the N word. She also forbids it for her black servants and for her African-American husband Ben; indeed, on her urging, Ben quit a TV series in which he starred because the scripts included the word, and he hasn’t worked much since. Barbra wants to bury the N-word once and for all. “Bad things happen when you say the N-Word,” Barbra says. But she seems to be the one to make the bad things happen on the particular day in which “The Night of the Living N Word” takes place; she has brought her family for the first time to the old plantation mansion where she grew up, in order to celebrate Channing’s 17th birthday.
Playwright Kevin R. Free also has a mission – actually, three missions. Free wants to make us laugh. In this he succeeds, helped along by a production, directed by Nicole A. Watson, that brings out the humor in actor and inanimate object alike (i.e. Joshua Coakley’s cartoon-like cardboard cutout props and sets.)
Free also wants to keep us surprised. For this, the show employs a spot-on six-member cast (including Free himself in the role of Ben) to take us for a dizzying 90-minute ride full of unexpected swerves and reversals. The vertigo is induced not just because of the play’s over-the-top plot but because of its switches in tone – from sketch comedy to campy horror movie spoof to black comedy (in two senses of that phrase.)
Finally, Free wants to make a serious statement about the complex and contradictory attitudes about race in America. He in effect asks us to consider why black and white Americans view that one word so differently. (It’s a word that is uttered dozens of times in the play, but which I do not feel comfortable repeating here.) He also seems to be asking why white people find racist language more troublesome than racist action. If that were not enough, thanks to several of his plot twists, he also questions our attitudes towards LGBT people.
It is a tall order for any entertainment, especially such a giddy one, to place these contentious matters before us.
Such pointed commentary amid the comic mayhem is sure to register more clearly and convincingly with some audience members than with others. What, for example, do you make of this exchange involving 17-year-old biracial Channing, his father Ben, and Clayton, who is Ben’s father and Channing’s grandfather, about Barbra’s ban on the N-word?
Channing: Why do you let her control you? You’re black. WE are black. She’s white. We can say whatever we want.
Ben: No YOU can’t. I can. But I won’t.
Clayton: Because he’s scared. We should all be scared.
Ben: There is nothing scarier than a white woman bent on saving a race.
How do you take that last line? It got a laugh, in part I suspect because of the delivery. But is this just a cheap laugh at the character’s expense, with sexist overtones? Or is this meant to show up white hypocrisy? How is Barbra a hypocrite? Is it because her plantation-owner parents were racist? But she’s rejected her parents’ values. Is it because she can’t help but be a hypocrite in a white-privileged society? Is her behavior another example of the patronizing attitude of even well-meaning white people towards people of color — the liberal version of white supremacy?
Now, is it possible your attitude towards this line depends on your race, gender, generation or sexual orientation? Is it indelicate even to ask such a question? That I AM asking – that “Night of the Living N Word” has inspired such questions – is proof of the show’s effectiveness as something more than silly entertainment, even for those who have qualms about it.
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