Representations and Reparations

American Theater Magazine’s Rob Weinert-Kendt writes about how a recently-closed play in New York’s contemplation of representation intersects with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent essay on reparations:

Like Coates’ piece, Jacobs-Jenkins’ play—essentially an annotated adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodramaThe Octoroon—doesn’t play by now-familiar rules of the race-card game, particularly the shame-the-audience transaction by which we’re made to see how awful American attitudes used to be (oh but not anymore). Instead it shifts and shatters the frame, taking the racist conditions of 19th-century chattel slavery for granted while also taking Boucicault’s characters and their drama disarmingly seriously, give or take a contemporary joke here or a meta-theatrical gambit there. The result plays less like The Scottsboro Boys, about whose schematic ironies I had misgivings similar to Mildly Bitter’s, and feels closer in spirit to George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, which by connecting dots throughout black history implied continuity more than progress. Similarly, in An Octoroon Jacobs-Jenkins has the past and present hang out, seemingly casually but never less than pointedly, in the same space: a white actor in blackface alongside black actors, or a slave admonishing another, self-help-style, “Don’t bring your work home with you.”

You can read the whole thing here

There is a long tradition on the stage of metatheatre, which is to say, theatre that is as much about itself and its own construction as it is about telling a story or its characters. As a result, the stage is often a perfect environment for analyzing, deconstructing and remaking our culture’s dominant narratives about what it means to be black in America. 

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