At the start of MTC’s new virtual reading of Richard Wesley’s short play “The Past is the Past,” available for free through February 28th, a middle aged man named Earl (Ron Cephas Jones, Emmy winner as the absent father in “This is Us”) is playing pool when a “youngblood” named Eddie (Jovan Adepo, known for “Watchmen”) enters the pool hall, and stares.
“You new around here?” Earl asks
“Yeah, I thought so. Don’t remember ever seeing you before. Though, I got to admit, there sure is something familiar-looking about you.”
It was from this early moment that I guessed who the men are to one another, although it isn’t fully revealed until halfway through the 22 minute video.
Eddie is the son Earl abandoned at birth.
If the premise is predictable, the production is a showcase for two fine actors, and an opportunity to see an early play by a playwright who has been chronicling African American lives since his 1971 “Black Terror,” unsentimentally imagining a Black revolution, that debuted at the New York Public Theater, and recently as the librettist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning opera composed by Anthony Davis, ‘The Central Park Five,” about the Black teenagers defamed and imprisoned for a rape they didn’t commit.
Yet, it makes me uncomfortable that Manhattan Theatre Club chose to make this particular play the first of its new Curtain Call Series, revisiting in virtual form plays that had productions on its stages in the past. We’re told the play premiered at MTC in 1975. Although there is no overt indication that the action is taking place nearly half a century ago, “The Past is the Past” is the past.
With sounds of balls clacking to indicate that they’re playing pool, there is a back-and-forth dialogue between the questing, resentful son who is himself about to become a father and the absent father who won’t apologize, or express guilt, but does try to explain. Earl had fathered three children with three women, and was barely a presence in any of their lives, although Eddie was the only one he shut out completely. “I’m a nomad. Most colored men are….We got no choice.” That he eventually settled down with a steady job and a live-in family of a wife and two more children just means “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
It is a mark of Wesley’s skills as a dramatist (and Jones’ as an actor) that Earl is no villain; he is presented as a somewhat sympathetic figure who was struggling to get by, and now is trying to face life realistically.
Still, there is (to repeat) no indication this is a period piece, and there is a context outside the play that is hard to ignore. “The Past is the Past” was first produced a decade after The Moynihan Report (officially titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”) in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sociologist and future U.S. Senator then working as Assistant Secretary of Labor in LBJ’s administration, decried the high number of black families headed by single mothers.
Debate over the implications, motivations, accuracy and influence of this report has been heated and complex. In recent years, there’s been much written about “The Myth of the Missing Black Father.” That, indeed, is the title of an academic book (Columbia University Press, 2009) edited by two sociologists, Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green, in which the authors note: “Common stereotypes portray black fathers as being largely absent from their families. Yet while black fathers are less likely than white and Hispanic fathers to marry their child’s mother, many continue to parent through cohabitation and visitation, providing caretaking, financial, and other in-kind support.”
A 2013 study entitled Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006–2010 from the National Center for Health Statistics noted that Black fathers (70%) were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%).
Last June, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Josh Levs, an author of a book about fatherhood, wrote an opinion piece entitled “They’re Dragging Out the ‘Absent Black Fathers’ Myth Again. Can We Give it a Rest? “
A few questions might spring to mind, like: Who am I to assess whether “The Past is the Past” is the wisest choice right now, when the playwright, the actors, director Oz Scott, and even stage manager Jhanaë Bonnick are themselves Black?
The answer is that I more closely fit the demographic profile of the average MTC theatergoer, except I’ve made the effort to confirm that Earl’s story is not typical. There are many plays MTC could have chosen to mark Black History Month before a largely white audience. I suspect this one was picked primarily because it’s short.