As we watch the clown show from hell play out in Washington, D.C., many may feel baffled about how to put what this country is going through into an understandable context. Well, guess what? Karamu House has fashioned the ideal context in their current production of Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward.
Ward wrote this outrageous one-act in 1965, another time of virulent political upheaval. And while it is enormously depressing that the bigotry and ignorance of 50 years ago is still alive and thriving in the U.S. today, it's also encouraging that theaters such as Karamu are giving voice to Ward's work.
Absence is a pure satire, performed minstrel show-style by black actors in whiteface who enact a day in the life of a Southern backwater town. On this day, the white folks awaken to discover, gradually, that all the black people have disappeared. At first this causes mild consternation, as when Lula the maid isn't on hand to deal with John and Mary's screaming infant. John: "(She) needs her didee changed — go change it!" Mary: "How you 'spect me to when I don't know how? Suppose I faint?"
And things just get worse from there. The phone lines are jammed up because all the white people are on the horn trying to find the black people who make their lives function. Even the mayor of the town is helpless to deal with the situation, as he says, "By God, we'll find 'em even if we have to dig 'em outta the ground!"
The disappearance is never explained and the satire's message is a one-joke premise — that white people are totally dependent on the black people they abuse and demean — but it doesn't really get tired. This is due to the direction by Nathan A. Lilly, who keeps his actors pushing the envelope in terms of their characterizations. While this isn't a perfect production, with odd energy lapses that crop up at times, including in the concluding moments of the play, it nails the satire with devastating effect.
Satire on stage is always a dicey enterprise, and many people have preconceived notions about how it should be presented. In this instance, director Lilly has aggregated a wide variety of characterizations that nicely mimic actual white people who are foisting their ignorance on our society. By not subscribing to a single approach, he keeps the proceedings lively and captivating. And weirdly realistic.
The Mayor, as played brilliantly by Robert Hunter, is a fellow who almost seems like a normal (if highly agitated) civic leader, as he intones his racist blather. He's kind of like Sen. Jeff Flake from Arizona, who weeps openly at the inhumanity of Republican initiatives and then votes for every bill that violates the values he claims to hold dear.
Perhaps the highlight of the show is Hunter's emotional televised speech as the Mayor, when he pleads with the absent "nigras" to come home: "Look George, I brought the rag you wax the car with. Don't that bring back memories?"
On the other end of the spectrum is an industrialist, given a totally (and hilariously) over-the-top performance by Jeannine Gaskin. Trembling with outrage, Gaskin virtually vibrates herself across the stage as her un-named character reacts to the emergency. Gaskin also contributes a star turn as Mrs. Aide, a demure white woman who rejects the idea of bribing the blacks to return: "God forbid! Money is unimportant. Would only make 'em worse. Our main goal is to improve their ethical behavior."
Some might consider Gaskin's performance as the industrialist too exaggerated. Really? Have you ever listened to U.S. Rep. Steve King from Iowa suggest that our immigration laws should be based on the way we pick out a pet dog, or saying that he never heard of a pregnancy being caused by incest or rape? (And, you know, Brett Kavanaugh's silent-movie emoting during his Congressional hearing.) Now who's over the top?
There are spot-on performances throughout this cast, with most of the actors handling multiple roles. Prophet D. Seay is a downbeat porch-sitting citizen, Luke, who's seen it all. And he later transforms into Rev. Pious, offering a peace pipe to the absent African-Americans: "Return your buckets to where they lay and all will be forgiven." Nate Summers adds an amusing cameo as an always out-of-breath Courier who arrives with increasingly bad news. And Sherrie Tolliver ably anchors the proceedings as a bland TV Announcer who tut-tuts at the situation while providing no further insight.
Rounding out the solid cast are Maya T. Jones, Lachaka A. Askew, Austin Blake Sasser and Jailyn Sherell Harris who all have their moments.
But the real star of the play is the playwright Ward, whose words have lost none of their snap and wit over time. And the time now is perfect for his satire to be seen. There are more and more targeted groups these days: blacks (as always); Latino immigrants whose families are ripped apart; women whose claims of physical abuse are still, even in the era of #MeToo, often dismissed; and transgender people who some are trying to redefine out of existence.
Ward saw what was happening in the 1960s and attacked it with his words. As the columnist Molly Ivins once said, "Satire is the weapon of the powerless against the powerful." And this production at Karamu brandishes Ward's savage satire with skill.
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