William Electric Black Reverses Races in THE WHITES
James Baldwin wrote in 1962, "The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning-and neither can this be overstated-a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him-for that is what it is-is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils. For the horrors of the American Negro's life there has been almost no language."
Being condemned to an underclass because of one's dark skin is all-too familiar to African-Americans. William Electric Black's newest play, "The Whites," aims to illuminate the feelings that accompany this experience for the benefit of all the races. It's done with a unique concept of race reversal. He offers us a family drama in which the situation and characters are culturally Black but the cast is White. Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., will present the play's world premiere run November 7 to 24, 2019, directed by the author.
"The Whites" takes us into a universe where the races are flipped and Whites are actually citizens of an ethnic underclass that is dominated by African-Americans. We watch the Caucasian family of Harris and Rasheeda White contend with gun violence, school segregation and the aftermath of prison. For this family and their surrounding community, the everyday experiences of economic, political and social injustice are imposed by Blacks.
Harris is a bus driver who strives to keep the family together. His wife, Rasheeda, is an activist who drives her children to succeed in school. Their son, Raymond, will possibly find basketball his ticket out of the neighborhood. His twin sister, Taylor, crusades to rid the community of guns. Harris' brother, Bunk, is a recovering alcoholic and ex-con who wants to make amends for his troubled past. His son, G- Good, is an at-risk youth with gang ties. Surrounding this extended family are colorful neighborhood personalities: Miss Martha, an advice columnist; Ujamma Man, a local street corner philosopher and Sugar Jefferson, a budding Spike Lee-type film maker. The plot culminates in one life lost and one wasted, a neighborhood resolved to rebuild a church that has been burned, and a resolution by the young White people never to let Black people "put you in a box."
Stylistically, the play is something like an "Our Town" in which a cast of White characters has been placed into a modern day Black story line. Like "Our Town," it is played with very little scenery or props. The minimalism is deliberate: the people and their social position are to be our focus. Scenes and their transitions are underscored by live acoustic bass played by Marc Schmied, imparting a jazzical feel.
Playwright/director William Electric Black (www.williamelectricblack.com), aka Ian Ellis James, is a seven-time Emmy Award winning writer for his work on "Sesame Street" between 1992 and 2002. He also wrote for Nickelodeon's "Allegra's Window" and Lancit Media's "Backyard Safari." Theater for the New City gave him his start in theater, presenting his earliest work, "Billy Stars and Kid Jupiter," in 1980. Now, TNC proudly continues its tradition of supporting and developing Black's unique, thought-provoking theatrical work.
Black's record with "activist" plays is admirable. In 2009, he had directed Theater for the New City's sensational and serious "Lonely Soldier Monologues: Women at War in Iraq," a staged series of monologues based on a book by Helen Benedict. The play earned widespread notice and significantly helped the issues of America's female soldiers to be widely recognized for the first time. Between 2013 and 2018, he created his "Gunplays" series (www.gunplays.org), a series of five plays on the subject of gun violence.
Black also creates delightful musicals for family audiences. These have included "Betty and the Belrays" (TNC, 2007 and 2018), in which three white female singers challenged a racially divided society by singing for a black record label, "My Boyfriend is a Zombie" (TNC, 2010), which was like Grease with a zombie twist, and "American Star!!!" (TNC, 2013), a satire of adolescents' obsessions with celebrity idol TV shows. Black has also written, produced and directed a series of plays and musicals for La MaMa, where he runs the Poetry Electric series.
In a series of multimedia projects, Black has campaigned for exercise and good nutrition for young children, prescription drug awareness and obesity prevention. He has received a Bronze Apple (National Educational Video Award) for directing. He has also received several Best Play Awards and has been published by Benchmark Education, The Dramatic Publishing Co. and Smith & Krauss.
He is a faculty member at NYU's Tisch School (Dept. of Dramatic Writing/Open Arts, and NYU's Summer High School Program). He has also taught at The Collegiate School, The Riverdale Country Day School, Southern Illinois University, 92nd Street Y, Teachers & Writers and TheatreWorks USA.
Black is writing, directing, and producing animated videos on stroke prevention with the National Stroke Association and childhood obesity prevention for Hip Hop Public Health under the direction of Dr. Olajide Williams featuring music by Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D, other rap artists. He has completed three short films to educate the Black faith-based community and the Hispanic faith-based community on stroke awareness. In 2015, he published an early reader, "A Gun is Not Fun" (www.agunisnotfunthebook.com) for children's education as part of a national campaign to save lives in cities across America.
Mr. Black writes, "I could not have started my career as a writer/director of plays and musicals without the support of Crystal Field and Theater for the New City. I truly appreciate Crystal's continued support that has allowed me to bring the Electric Black Experience to so many people."
Marc Schmied (Acoustic Bass) has been on the New York music scene for the last 25 years. After studies at Juilliard, he began performing in the classical, jazz, and theater worlds. Classical credits include the Albany Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. Broadway credits include "King Kong," "Come From Away," "Matilda," "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular," "La Cage aux Folles," "Evita," "On a Clear Day," "South Pacific," "Cabaret" and many others. Since 2012, he has performed regularly with Tommy Tune and is currently gigging with Broadway actor Lauren Patten and her rock band.
The actors are Emma Bass, John Michael Hersey, Janet Donofrio, Nathan Keiller, Joseph Sean Murphy, Eve Packer, David Rieth, Kamal Sehrawy and Richard Weber. Costumes and props are by Susan Hemley. Stage manager is Marissa Johnson. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Board operator is Megan Horan.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff