BWW Reviews: Insincere White Invitations, New Black Authenticity: THE ASHES UNDER GAIT CITY Premieres at CATF
[Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]
In a review I wrote a few years ago, I dispraised August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and drew a flame from a reader who said, in effect, that effete white reviewers who quoted Shakespeare had no business reviewing Wilson. In effect It's a black thing; you wouldn't understand. Although I did not respond in writing, my thought was that the standards of criticism are universal enough so the race of the critic who faithfully adheres to them should not matter.
But last weekend I came across a piece that seems so much of a part of an internal dialogue in the African-American community, so attuned to nuances and experiences in which white people do not generally share, that for once I'm constrained to say I may not be getting important things, and my critical standards may not work well. Nonetheless, I am the designated reviewer for this page, and I shall do what I can.
The play is Christina Anderson's The Ashes Under Gait City, experiencing its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. It concerns the efforts of a small band of black visionaries to establish a presence and a community in an Oregon town which historically tried to exclude blacks by force, and more recently established a regime of disregard. But to say it in that way suggests some kind of civil rights movement, and that would be an inadequate label.
Perhaps quoting the author's directions at the outset of the script may give a clearer notion: "The Black people in this play are the kind of Black people who are often accused of 'not being truly Black' by other Black people. The Black people in this play are the kind of Black people who, on several different occasions, have had a white person tell them 'I don't even think about color when I consider you.' The Black people in this play redefine Black authenticity." Which I guess means talking with general American accents and being culturally part of the American middle class.
What seems to motivate these avatars of redefined Black authenticity is anger at white disregard and the subtle racism that is hard to detect and harder to prove. Simone the Believer, the leader of this movement (Daphne Gains), elicits from her follower D (Kaliswa Brewster), an account of a job she lost because of it. "I thought I was safe there. Then meetings were scheduled without me. Presentations edited without my consent. Signatures unverified. But the smiles were still there. The apologies so sincere. And the mix-ups, the slip-ups never felt intentional."
So far, so good. Any beneficiary of white privilege can examine his or her conscience and think of times he or she has politely but wrongly discounted someone of color. But the Oregon town turns out to do worse than merely disregard its few black citizens. Although the script is far from precise or clear on this, it would appear that at some point in the distant past there had been a fire in this town, and it was rebuilt so as not to have black citizens. The survivors were driven out. But, perhaps owing to an inconsistency in the script, somehow there were black citizens nonetheless, although they were fewer in number. (Historically, as the dramaturg's notes tell us, Oregon attempted to legislate exclusion of free blacks, and maintained segregationist laws during Jim Crow times.)
What it has apparently come down to in modern times is that a shadowy group called the Re-enactors participate in an annual festival as a part of which a black person is chased out of town. But it is confusing, because at least one local African American has been politely asked to join the Re-enactors. And it has supposedly become more benevolent, by making the black "fox" a paid volunteer. Toward the end of the play, though, we catch a glimpse of this tradition in action, and it seems more like a mixture of a cross-burning and Shirley Knight's The Lottery. Real injuries result.
This is where the white reviewer parts company with the black playwright. We all know there remain atavistic pockets of the white community where the racism is violent and terrifying, but the participants do not ask their black neighbors to join their Klavern, even as a hypocritical gesture. So if this is meant as a serious reflection on the state of affairs, if we are meant to agree that the polite disregard that leads to stories like D's loss of a corporate job is the same thing as the racial terrorism apparently practiced by the Re-enactors, it is a bridge too far.
There's a lot of what looks like similarly ill-thought-through material in this play. What are we to make of leader Simone, presented to us as a paid "believer," who somehow has parlayed her talent for believing in people into paid client relationships, although she meets none of these clients face-to-face? What are we to make of a Twin Peaks-y moment at which the members of Simone's local group see that Gait City is a laid out as a perfect diamond? What do we make of Simone's imprecise mastery of leadership skills, exemplified, for instance, by her discouraging the sexual relationship forming between two of her disciples, for no apparent good reason, or her questionable judgment in deliberately provoking the Re-enactors? What of the horrific "initiation" ritual Simone's group establishes at the end that echoes the assaults of the Re-enactors? And finally, what of the apparent conflict between the message of the above-quoted "redefining Black authenticity" discussion, in which the new paradigm seems to be a lack of embarrassment at doing what others might call "acting white," and the semi-separatism of the community Simone is trying to build?
Make no mistake; the play is fascinating at all times, amusing at many, and it contains much good material, for instance as sophisticated a depiction of the way modern social media work as I've seen anywhere (a tip of the hat to the techies who project the images that tell the tale). But either it is a thematic mess or my place on the wrong side of the racial divide obscures a lot of it to me. I'm open to either possibility. At the root of the problem, I think, is that it's hard to know what to take literally and what to treat as a deliberate exaggeration. The performances are all terrific too, especially Gaines and Shauna Miles (pictured above) as Felicia, the no-nonsense landlady of the movement.
In any case, if you go, whatever you look like, you'll have plenty to talk about afterwards.
The Ashes Under Gait City, by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, through August 3, at the Marinoff Center, 62 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$59, www.catf.org/boxoffice, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, adult language.