Two members of a book club for Black women have invited M’Balia, an author who advocates violent revolution, to speak to their group and perhaps help turn it into a revolutionary cadre, in “The Noir Femme Avengers.” The play by Brittany K. Allen was the most thought-provoking of the six short new works that were presented online in the “48 Hours in Harlem” tenth anniversary festival over the weekend.
The set-up of Allen’s play at first feels satirical. The women, Char and Zee (portrayed by Shavanna Calder and D. Wood), seem middle-class, fun-loving, young. M’Balia the author (Patricia R. Floyd), although she says things like “power will not relent without bloodshed,” is an elderly woman dressed in a church-going hat. She tells them she can’t spend much time with them. “These anti-racist reading lists are blowing up my schedule, so to speak.”
But, once M’Balia signs off from their Zoom meeting, it becomes abruptly clear that these are not just bougie girls playing at being serious.
“I don’t know if I want to be out there taking lives, Char,” Zee says. “When somebody dies, they’re just gone, and it’s cold comfort even if they die for a good reason.”
“Your brother was killed for no reason,” Char replies. “He was shot and he’s gone, and no one has paid for it.”
“Yeah, because no one can…”
There is an extra layer to the characters’ ambivalence. The play was inspired by Richard Wesley’s 1971 play “Black Terror,” about a black revolutionary assassin who becomes full of doubt about whether violence is the answer.
That two playwrights are speaking together simultaneously from two moments in history is not a coincidence; it’s by design. Every year, the theater collective known as Harlem9 hands one of a half dozen classic African-American plays to each of a half dozen African-American playwrights and gives them 48 hours to write a new play inspired by the previous work.
For its tenth anniversary, Harlem9 used the same plays it had used in its inaugural festival. So, in 2011, George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” inspired Dominique Morisseau to write “The Masterpiece.” In 2020, Wolfe’s play inspired Keith Josef Atkins to write “The Last White Man in Power Play.”
Atkins’ play takes place in the future, with three characters have been living in “a sanctuary pod,” bickering, while an ominous sounding “organization” is getting rid of white people in power, and about to set Black people free. Like Allen’s play, Atkins’ offers a healthy dose of ambivalence, suggesting there would be no utopian future even if there were no white men. In such plays as Atkins’, the connection between the old and the new work isn’t always self-evident, sometimes not even to the playwright. But the results can be impressive, as I reported last year,
That Harlem9 has spent ten years creating works about the Black experience would suggest, now that the Black experience has taken center stage, that this is their moment. And it is. But they are no longer alone. “Center stage” is not just a metaphor. Earlier this month, to pick one example, the #WhileWeBreathe anthology produced similar results.
Still, Harlem9’s festival this year continued its well-honed mix of entertainment, inspiration and provocative context.
In “Day of…What?” three of the whitest characters imaginable — named Chad, Karen and Becky — wake up in the morning having turned Black. Two scream. One is initially shocked that she’s so tanned but winds up delighted.
This is the first year that 48 Hours in Harlem was presented online, and the directors did a good job of making the Zoom bearable – none more inventively than Marjuan Canady’s staging if Tracey Conyer Lee’s “House of a Negro, Funny,” which was inspired by Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro.”
It’s also a play that began inaccessible — oh, this is going to be one of those abstract, absurdist plays — and became increasingly specific and powerful.
The last play in this year’s “48 Hours in Harlem” was entitled “I Hate Everything” by Jeremy O’Brian, about a support group for people who hate everything, and who are meeting to try to avoid committing suicide. The play was inspired by “Dutchman,” Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play about a white woman who flirts with a Black man in a subway train, and then stabs him to death. In O’Brian’s play, Star (Kaaron Briscoe) tells her fellow support group members the story of riding in a subway, and seeing how the other passengers treated a little Black boy rudely, but formed a protective circle around a dog. So Star stabbed the dog to death, she says matter-of-factly, while her listeners go slack-jawed in shock.
It’s a provocative take on a play that has been revived twice this month alone — by the Seeing Place Theater, and by Play-PerView starring Dule Hill and Jennifer Mudge, reprising their roles from a production in 2007 at the Cherry Lane, which is where the play debuted. It’s fascinating to look over the different reviews of this play in the New York Times over the years –
In 1964: an explosion of hatred rather than a play. It puts into the mouth of its principal Negro character a scathing denunciation of all the white man’s good works, pretensions and condescensions…..If this is the way even one Negro feels, there is ample cause for guilt as well as alarm, and for a hastening of change.
In 2007: “Dutchman” possesses a single objective: to produce guilt. But 43 years after it made its debut…it fails to do even that….What emerging feminists in the audience must have made of all this four decades ago is something to wonder. The notion that a woman might embody all the power and evil of American empire when she still could not make her way out of the broom closet must have had the vague semblance of science fiction.
In 2020:In this tale of Adam and Eve — and in the real story of America — a Black person who’s smart and well aware of his position and willing to speak out is danger, a fire waiting to be extinguished. But even more frightening, a Black person may be killed simply because, like Adam biting the apple and getting punished with the curse of mortality, Black death has become a perverted inevitability of life in America. Here’s the story: We do or we don’t take a bite of the apple, but either way we choke.
Whatever else we can take away from these remarkably different reactions to the same play, it helps demonstrate how useful the project Harlem9 has set for itself in “48 Hours in Harlem” – to keep looking anew at both the Black Experience and Black Theater…from a Black perspective.