In my essay last month, "Imagination and Identity," I discussed an email notice I received about something called "The American Slavery Project," sponsored by "The New Black Fest," a theatre project arranged around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
The purpose of this monthly reading series is to "celebrate the work of African American playwrights who boldly and refreshingly explore slavery and/or the Civil War" and to "promote a new generation of African-American voices who are telling the diverse and rich stories from an era that most adversely affected us."
That appeal to ethnic authenticity really bugged me because, to me, it indicated a distrust, rather than an enlargement, of the power of imagination, a notion I tried to explain in the essay.
Well, I went to the first reading on March 7 of "Fast Blood" by Judy Tate, and it turned out to be one of those warm, supportive, earnest events with a talk-back -- a satisfying experience all-around. Except that I left the event still feeling bugged, only this time by something completely different.
The burr under the saddle comes out of the project's mission statement: to celebrate work that "boldly and refreshingly explore[s] slavery and/or the Civil War." Actually, two burrs under the saddle. First, I think this focus is past its prime, and, second, I think it's insufficiently bold.
Past its prime -- yes. The room on March 7 felt suffused with what I can only call a retro aura. The organizers, in their pre-show talk, used "slavery" and the "Civil War" as if the terms had settled meanings that people with good progressive urges could use to both advance the cause of unfinished civil rights and beat back re-castings of the Confederacy as "celebrations of heritage." Together, art and properly told history would contribute what it could to ensure the arrival of justice.
Really? Assuming that one could get the "meaning" of the link between the Civil War and slavery "right," does that knowledge, told "boldly and refreshingly," really have any transformational voltage in the world of the United States in 2011? Like it or not, it's old news. Perhaps a case for its utility can be made as a starting point for an intellectual and historical understanding of the parlous state of people of color in our culture. But as a guide to plan present actions, it has limited usefulness, no matter how artistically told.
I also feel the festival's mission is insufficiently bold. The slavery the promoters need to focus their artistic sights on is not the version of 150 years ago but the current one of the American prison system, which is as systematically racist and apartheid-like as the older "peculiar institution." Yes, one can trace the sesquicentennial link between the two, but the dismantling of the barbaric and corrosive penal system needs to happen right now, if not earlier, and a festival like this, dedicated to exploring slavery through this generation's voices, should focus on the slavery that matters most to this generation, and that's the one perpetrated through the law books and paid for by our tax dollars.
I applaud, as I always do, any effort by my fellow theaterites to use what powers they can gather to speak to the things that afflict us in ways that help us to understand, resist, advance. I only wish that this particular effort hadn't settled on such a limited discourse. Perhaps in its next go-around, it can blow a brighter trumpet and call us all to a different set of arms.