BWW Review: SMOKED OYSTERS at TC Squared Theatre Company
One of the inescapable pillars of the human condition is the universal narcissism with which we consume media. Entirely incapable of existing within a vacuum with the narratives presented to us, we search films, theatre, books, songs, and television for those personal implications we are certain the authors have buried for us in their work. The mention of the word 'father', for instance, can send every individual's mind spiraling through memories and individual associations. Same with 'home', 'memory', 'childhood', and 'love'. This narcissism reveals itself in unfortunately dangerous ways when we look at how our culture, race, economic status, sexuality, and gender intercede in our consumptions of media. White people (of which I am one, I choose to address the crowd rather than say 'we' because I know I do not write for an exclusively white audience) can bring whiteness into a space, both physically and metaphysically, in ways that it is not asked for. Too often, I interact with white people telling me how much I can learn from reading such and such a book or seeing such and such a play. This is all well and good-- we all need to expand our horizons beyond the perspectives of those exactly like us-- until we start to unpack the fact that not all art made by non-white people is made to be educational for white audiences. Reducing Black art, or any art by non-white artists, to be judged through a measure of how well it educates white people is ignorant. White people need to start to be okay with Black theatre that does not seek to educate us or, for that matter, cater to us or even represent us in any way.
When I entered Greater Egleston High School in Roxbury for TC Squared's premiere production of Smoked Oysters by Mary M McCullough, Shirley Ellis' Nitty Gritty was blasting from a speaker. I was one of few white people in the audience. Black playwright. Black director. All Black cast. Black stage manager making final adjustments to the set. African masks hung on wooden beams which supported the corrugated steel roof. A painting of a street scene-- maybe New Orleans? The play was about a family who, statistically, most Americans can relate to. We meet Ulysses, a retired African-American history professor living with Alzheimer's and Arnetta, his wife who familiarly navigates the struggle of acting as a caregiver to someone whose memory comes and goes.
A perverse part of white narcissism means that we are most enticed to learn about perspectives which are not our own when they exist in narratives in which we also exist, whether as allies, saviors, or antagonists. Looking at most mainstream media which centers Black narratives, we can identify that many deal with slavery, the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, and, recently, American police brutality. All three of these premises require an examination of white supremacy as a primary, if not exclusive, villain. By exploring the ideas of memory-loss in a character to whom history is vitally important and exploring the complicated gender-dynamics of an ill husband struggling to exist without his wife, McCullough has created an inherently Black play in which whiteness is not the primary antagonist. While it would be ignorant to state that, in a play about a Black family living in modern-day Roxbury, whiteness is not at least a minor antagonizing force, it is not one that is mentioned more than once or twice. Likewise, capitalism, the imperialist, anti-poor US government, and the insular thought processes of higher education seem to be secondary characters behind the greater problems the family faces. I think of the Black horror movies of this past year, no doubt, inspired by the success of Jordan Peele's Get Out. In Us, we see a Black family terrorized by their demonic doppelgangers. In Fabric shows us a Black single mother tormented by a haunted dress she purchased at a department store. Smoked Oysters, though not a work of horror, shows us a Black family weighed down by the monster that is the memory loss of their patriarch. In all three cases, the protagonists can rail against their clones, possessed clothes, or mental illnesses while still maintaining Black-ness as a necessary part of their narratives. Whiteness is not required in order for these stories to be told.
Speaking of narcissism, we love to cry in the theatre. We watch others' suffering and are moved to tears. However, these tears are not productive, unless the intended outcome of a work is to serve exclusively to incite catharsis in an audience. Too often, we weep, and then leave the theatre feeling proud and congratulatory about our empathy. We post on Facebook and urge our friends not to forget their tissues if they go, an underhanded way of announcing and extolling our own capacity for empathy. We weep, we feel proud of our weeping, and we move on. McCullough has woven a narrative that demands more from us. Again, statistically, most Americans have a loved one affected by either Alzheimer's or dementia. Watching Ulysses act out in childish frustration on stage is disturbing and viscerally upsetting. However, the framing of the piece allows us to wallow in sorrow but then asks us to engage with many questions. It raises a thought about what it means that Ulysses has fallen ill and now Arnetta's life must be put on hold to take care of her husband, casting aside plans for a safari in Africa. We watch as their son, Bernard, suffers under the weight of needing to take on a caregiving role while also dealing with troubles in his relationships and the pressure of a possible promotion at work. Complexities arise as characters discuss the relationships between fathers and sons, between white students and African-American history professors, or between mothers and their sons' girlfriends.
Smoked Oysters may very well be one of the smartest pieces Boston will see on stage this year, and part of its smart-ness is the way in which, as a reviewer, I do not know who to praise for the experience I had tonight. Is it McCullough's script, which bounds through trivia game shows and 'I spy' matches with a clean poetic tone, that makes the three characters we meet seem so recognizable? Perhaps it is Paul Benford-Bruce, playing Ulysses in a sympathetic but unflinching way, visibly enraged at his own detectable destruction, who makes us feel that we are genuinely in the presence of someone who poses a danger to himself, inciting us to pity, frustration, and anxiety. Maybe it is Letta Neely, a poet who gives us an Arnetta that only a poet could give us, her voice stoically firm in contrast to her physical lightness, who makes us feel that we are watching something meant to be private. Is it Zair Silva as Bernard who grins above an underlying pain, which once uncovered, never seems to sit back as neatly beneath the surface as it did before, who makes us think about how we will care for those we love in their old age and how we will hopefully be cared for ourselves? What of the success of this show is owed to director, Deen Rawlins, whose handling of the piece in seamless, dreamlike vignets, broken up by gently fading sounds and lights, clearly marks them as a young artist to watch out for? Or is the true genius here artistic director, Rosalind Thomas-Clark, announcing the piece with pride in her gentle New Zealand accent, who had the foresight to workshop and allow this piece to develop before passing it off to the capable hands aforementioned for its world premiere?
In my estimation, it is the combined excellence of all of the above- and the many others who worked on this show-- who, together, have elevated it to its current state of excellence. The play itself has a lot to say, but it does not fall in the trap of delivering a ham-fisted moral, which we are sitting through a lot of right now in Boston. Instead, questions are raised, and space is made in which audiences can explore those questions. All the while, there are events happening on stage. I know that feels like a given element of theatre (events happening on stage), but after sitting through The Cake at Lyric Stage Company, it was nice to be reminded that not all contemporary theatre needs to be 90 minutes of overstrung arguments. If the piece is workshopped further or performed again, it is my hope that it will not be given an excessive budget to achieve the catalogue-model of realism we are forced to accept too often on American stages. The success and the heart of McCullough's piece is that it is all too real without attempting to be realistic. It is a poem that seems to mimic life in a way that helps us unpack the issues we all face.
My email and Twitter are available on my profile, and if you make it out to Roxbury to see the show, (just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Stony Brook MBTA station) let me know what you think. This is a piece I will want to talk more about.
Smoked Oysters runs through January 22 at Greater Egleston High School in Roxbury, MA. More information here.