Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer "A Jackpot of Jiggaboos"

By Chris Davis

APRIL 5, 1999: 

The problem is that people want to make the theatre so polite. Theatre isn’t polite. Do you think that when Shakespeare wrote his plays that he was trying to be polite? Hell no!”

These words cut through the din of clanking glasses and the buzz of chipper cocktail banter at the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre’s fund-raising gala this past Saturday. The man who declaimed with such youthful enthusiasm (not to mention considerable volume) on that most favored topic was none other than 69-year-old Douglas Turner Ward, the celebrated playwright and co-founder of New York’s famed Negro Ensemble Company.

Ward was being honored that evening by the MBRT for his many contributions to African-American theatre. His raucous one-act A Day of Absence, which opens at TheatreWorks on April 1st, is an American kissing-cousin of Ionesco’s The Killing Game, and one of our country’s finest satirical offerings. Originally presented in 1965, it is a white racist’s fantasy twisted into a wickedly comedic nightmare depicting a city brought to its beggarly knees when all of the “Nigras” mysteriously vanish. Unfolding in a series of increasingly chaotic vignettes, and using the decidedly Brechtian device of a reverse minstrel show, black actors in whiteface present an array of all too recognizable Caucasian stereotypes. Working under the premise that racism is irrational, and can therefore only be addressed through absurdity, Ward’s play never becomes preachy throughout its unique and occasionally brutal exploration of America’s racial interdependence. It is a comic jewel, constantly insightful, and not the least bit polite.

At in informal and sparsely attended Q&A held at Theatre Memphis, Ward spoke candidly about his own work, while addressing several of the challenges faced by black theatres:

“My influence was Brecht. I shared Brecht’s ideas about what theatre could do, and what it could be about, and who it could try to address itself to, ideally. Who it needs to speak for. … My satire is like wielding a two-edged switchblade knife … it’s cutting, it’s stabbing, not so much at the audience but at its particular targets. That’s more or less what I mean by being influenced by Brecht. How theatre can be meaningful, without being reduced to just the bourgeois parameters. The biggest advantage, and the way I differ from Brecht and even the great European writers, including the absurdists, is that I have access to an audience that I don’t have to write against. I can write in harmony and sympathy with the aspirations of my own people: to be free and to overcome their oppression. A Day of Absence is unique in the sense that we don’t have too many American satirists in the theatre – period. Satire is not a genre that America has embraced because we have been too self-consciously literal-minded. Taking ourselves too seriously, in a way.”

In response to Memphis Black Rep’s artistic director Harry Bryce’s concerns about pressure to produce black versions of popular standards like Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Ward responded ferociously, but with a good sense of humor:

“The fucking Odd Couple … like that’s supposed to be great literature?” he rails. “Your black constituency wouldn’t know The Odd Couple from the harmonious couple. What they are saying is that you must do [The Odd Couple] to legitimize what they think is valid. … They are putting down your organic material. … [You are] being seduced. Seduced and co-opted into thinking, ‘This is what I have to measure myself against.’ To be a valid black theatre you have to win [the white audience] with your own work and your own point of view. The general public are not that enduringly familiar with any play, in their mind, to the point where it’s common knowledge, except what they were taught in school. They were taught Shakespeare badly. You mention Shakespeare, and they start running the other way. The white audience, they have forgotten what The Odd Couple was, except to see the old movie. So you aren’t going to get any mileage out of it.”

Rather than condemning the vapid, generally formulaic but highly popular musicals that tour on what is known as “the chitlin’ circuit,” Ward praised the genre’s producers for their ability to take relatively unknown pieces of theatre from town to town and successfully find their niche audience. For claiming to be a man who wields a double-edged “switchblade,” Ward made it obvious that he was not a warrior or a revolutionary but an able architect, adamantly stressing that the success of America’s black theatre depends on clarity of vision, highlighting the importance of “audience education.”

“It’s back to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, you have got to play what you have got to play,” he says. “Sometimes people are going to like it, and sometimes they have to listen harder before they get it. Like Coltrane. The first time I heard Coltrane, you know, hell, [I thought] what is he doing? And I kept listening and kept listening and finally about the third or fourth time I heard him, he was playing with Miles, and he started his solo, and he kept going, and kept going, and suddenly – I was a Coltrane fan for the rest of my life.”

*From Ward's A Day of Absence

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