BWW Review: DAY OF ABSENCE at Theater Alliance
Just as African-American artists have sought to reclaim the racist imagery of the past to confront contemporary viewers, the entryway to the Theater Alliance's performance of "Day of Absence" at the Anacostia Playhouse is decorated with oversized posters advertising blackface minstrel shows.
More than one contemporary politician has been damaged by revelations of blackface incidents (that took place only a few decades ago).
Minstrelsy itself was a widely popular form of American entertainment from the late 19th to early 20th century - bigger than baseball, says a cast member. And their exaggerated, cartoonish and offensive portrayals introduced the Negro to many Americans in parts of the country who may have never seen one, seeding racist notions that linger today.
Therefore, the presentation of the Douglas Turner Ward satire in the manner of minstrelsy is a way to reclaim that realm by those who have been harmed by it.
It's a clever and cutting turn on history. And likewise, the vaudeville-type acts that precede the performance of "Day of Absence," take their own sinister and pointed turns, with a rope trick ending with a noose; a game show, "Say it Loud," involving the audience voting on a series of tricky historical questions; a man selling one aspect of black culture not yet appropriated by white folks.
The performance begins with one man in blackface, he wipes it off ashamedly as the nine other cast members approach the stage singing the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
The voices are so strong, you'd wish there were more singing in the variety portion of the program.
But the performance is divided just as original minstrel shows were: with an introduction (in which they also remind people to put away cell phones, nodding particularly to a woman in the front row who was audaciously recording the opening number), followed by the variety-filled portion known as the Olio, and finally into the play at hand.
"Everyone is allowed to laugh," the audience is instructed. "Everyone is allowed to feel uncomfortable."
Co-directors Raymond O. Caldwell and Angelisa Gillyard have devised the recreation of an historic American entertainment that couldn't possibly be presented any other way, with Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set, with its velvet curtains, minstrel posters and footlights, looking like something from the 1800s.
As engaging as that all is, when it comes to "the proper play," "Day of Absence," the work seems to take much longer to drill in its point than the succinct entertainments that preceded it.
Performed entirely in whiteface, Ward's work is a satire on what would happen if a racist little town were suddenly without its black population.
At first, it just seems that something is missing - as noted by a couple of exaggerated townspeople in the square - Damondre Green and Dylan Fleming, turning in the best comic performances of the crew.
Then it gets real when a couple realizes there's nobody to attend to their crying baby - they certainly have no idea to do it. The mayor's office is in an uproar; switchboards can't handle the complaining calls: Wherever have the black folks gone?
The exaggerated reactions fit with the satirical melodrama, yet the point is made almost immediately. Still the work goes on.
Ward's play - popular in the 1960s off-Broadway, when it might have seemed even more provocative - was always short; for a time it was paired with his "Happy Ending," which happened to be staged at the Anacostia Playhouse by a different company, All About the Drama, just last year.
Placing it in the context of a minstrel show, with its determining face makeup and the additional entertainments, is a perfect way to frame the work. But it's still feels a little long at 95 minutes total.
The historical framing also makes "Day of Absence" seem as if it's out of the Jim Crow era if not earlier; maybe we'd prefer to think that such thinking is something of the distant past. But the telephone operators and eventual newscaster (Nia Savoy) reminds us that the play was first presented in 1965; Ward, in fact, is still alive at age 89.
The racism that roils the country is still alive as well; that's why there's a community chat following every performance of the show.
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Standing, Kalya Warren, Jonathan Del Palmer, Ezinne Elele, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, Nia Savoy, Kaisheem Fowler- Bryant, Sisi Reid and Damondre Green. Front: Dylan J. Fleming. Photo by Manaf Azzam.
"Day of Absence" by Theater Alliance runs through Nov. 3 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Tickets 202-241-2539 or online.