Onstage, Paradise for Black Characters Often Comes With a Price

In “Soft,” Donja R. Love’s affecting new play at MCC Theater, a teenager wonders where Black boys go when they die. By the end the audience gets the answer: a haven overgrown with flowers where Black boys can truly be themselves.

The play takes place mostly within a classroom at a boarding school for troubled children; Mr. Isaiah, a young English teacher who has his own history with the law, tries to reach the six Black and brown students in his classroom so they do n’t get lost in the system, a likelihood that his boss his sees as an inevitability.

Love’s play is one of several recent Off Broadway productions in which deliverance comes at the end of tales of Black oppression in contemporary society. The works share a familiar setup that serves as a kind of urban parable about the ways in which the education system and other institutions can sabotage and trap people of color.

In their attempt to have their characters overcome that adversity, the playwrights often face the same narrative hurdle: How can these stories end? What does deliverance look like in a world in which the odds are stacked against these Black characters, and at a time when, post-Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd, artists are being held newly accountable for portraying Blackness responsibly.

There seem to be three variations on the deliverance ending: transcendence through death to a heaven or a paradise; escape from an institution; or a self-conscious meta-narrative pivot. Each can have its pitfalls, though. The first can come across as an idealization of death, and yet another example of Black tragedy being made into a beautiful spectacle. The other two — an escape or a narrative pivot — can be seen as ways for the work to circumnavigate the bleak realities of how Black people are treated in our society.

But what about the kind of deliverance that best serves the story while also reflecting our reality?

Throughout “Soft,” flowers are a prominent motif: one student sketches them in his notebook and on his writing assignments; petals fall from the ceiling as if a soft rain on the audience’s heads; and they frame the stage for the entire show.

At the end, in a gesture reminiscent of the final moments in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” and Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (which, along with “Soft,” was directed by Whitney White) the Black and brown audience members are singled out; they’re asked to rise so they can receive a pose of flowers from a dead Black boy who now lives in this Eden. The sentiment is lovely — a reminder to the Black audience members to celebrate their own softness and vulnerability.

When I attended the show (scheduled to run at MCC through July 10), several people left crying. I was moved but mournful, too. Despite the show’s beauty, it was ultimately another tale that ended in Black deaths. Perhaps part of the beauty is the loss; the flowers suggest an ephemeral grace.

Is there any version of Black paradise that doesn’t come with an asterisk — some great calamity, mishap or even death?

A similar question came to mind last year while watching the Broadway production of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over.” This “Waiting for Godot”-inspired play about race and police brutality ends with a Black man, suddenly endowed with godlike power, wandering into a lush garden paradise, but only after he absolves a white man of his sins and allows him to venture there first.

Nwandu has spoken about the edits she’s made to the play’s ending, because there’s no easy conclusion to a story about a persistent reality in America. Unfortunately, the play’s new ending seemed to unknowingly suggest that Black deliverance, if it happens at all, can only occur after the absolution of the white oppressors; even when a Black character has finally found agency, he still arrives second to paradise.

In Mansa Ra’s “… What the End Will Be,” a Roundabout Theater Company production onstage through July 10 at the Laura Pels Theater, deliverance is a happy lovers’ retreat. The play takes us inside a home with three generations of gay Black men: the eldest, Bartholomew, a widower who lived with his male partner after his wife died, is now ill and sharing a home with his son Maxwell, an uptight, self- hating careerist with a violent streak, and Maxwell’s closeted teenage son, Tony, a jock with a flamboyant boyfriend. With virtually no plot or character development, “ … What the End Will Be” stumbles toward a moment of deliverance, but, once again, the cost is a Black man’s life.

Bartholomew struggles through his painful last days with bone cancer, all the while hallucinating an image of his deceased partner, who places sunflowers throughout the set. The play makes a martyr of its gay Black elder and offers him the deliverance of death, as if “burying the gays” isn’t still a prominent — and problematic — trope in entertainment and culture today.

And to make it worse, Bartholomew’s death becomes a perfectly pat lesson for his son and grandson, helping them relate to each other and accept some version of their queerness anew. The dying Black man becomes a symbol of familial bonds, gay love and self-acceptance — his death his grants deliverance for the other characters.

In any case, death is only one kind of escape. In “Exception to the Rule” by Dave Harris, a classroom of Black students in detention, à la “Breakfast Club,” seek a literal escape, thanks to the addition of a clunky metaphor about the failures of the education system and the school- to-prison pipeline.

The students, all Black and stuck on the Friday before the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, biker, gossip and wonder where their conspicuously absent detention teacher is; they ca n’t leave, after all, without his permission. The student who’s most out of place in this bald incarceration allegory is the overachieving Erika, who is judged and mocked for her “good girl” behavior until she ultimately goes on a patronizing tirade criticizing her peers for not working hard enough, not code switching, not following the rules in order to climb out of the broken system they’re trapped in.

Ultimately Erika’s the only one who escapes detention, and the others are presumably stuck in this limbo. But the takeaway is unclear. Should we be praising Erika for her her anti-Blackness, her privilege her, her Uncle Tom maneuvers her? If not, then her escape she feels strangely celebrated in the play (at Roundabout’s Black Box Theater through June 26). Or else this is the most cynical ending one could imagine.

James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham,” playing at the Public Theater through July 17, adapts and then breaks from the story of “Hamlet.” Though Shakespeare’s original ends with almost everyone in a body bag, Ijames’s contemporary version challenges the notion that a story about Black characters — in particular gay Black characters — must necessarily end in tragedy.

The show’s avatars for Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes are all gay despite the homophobia, gender stereotyping and toxic masculinity that runs in their families. But these characters decide they won’t kill each other; they won’t die today.

Their deliverance — a joyous disco-drag cotillion of sorts — is twofold: a challenge to the expectations of tragedy inside the play and a hopeful take on intolerance about gender expression, vulnerability and sexuality outside of it. By knowingly breaking free from trappings of the tragedy play and from the social narrative of Black death, Ijames grants his characters the ability to liberate themselves from the crushing institutions of hate that thrive around them.

On one hand, you could arrive at the ending of “Fat Ham” and see it as an easy out, a way for the playwright to write the tragedy without writing just another Black tragedy. You could say that the play ‘s final deliverance is just a kind of deus ex machina, a writer showing his hand his to save his rear his.

And yet in the stylized, self-conscious world of “Fat Ham,” the characters have the agency to create change. They can see the world around them and the ways they’re stifled, and choose to invoke their paradise. They find their own deliverance. More than victims, they are their own saviors.

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