Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Black Like Us" furthers important community explorations about race

Florence (Chelsea Binta) & Maxine (Dior Davenport) in Black Like Us (photo by Shane Regan)

Black Like Us
Annex Theatre
(co-produced by Brownbox Theatre)
through March 1

Black Like Us wades in where a lot of others fear to tread, a full-out discussion of race in our veins. A recent Pacific Science Center exhibit focused on race and scientists discovered about a decade ago how one mutation in one gene (out of 3.1 billion?) may be the genesis for the lighter pink/yellow skin coloration that proliferated across Europe. Yet, skin color became the great divide in society.

The premise of the play starts with varied skin color within the same family. Two sisters are shaded differently: one lighter and one darker. That truth, already a head-shaker one might think, to those who see only "black" and "white," in 1950s Seattle, leads the one with lighter skin to escape the oppressive nature of the racial divide by "passing as white" and even loving and marrying an Italian and not introducing him to her family.

"Passing" was considered a trick and a con. Regardless of how absurd it was and is to categorize people by skin hue, "passing" was ... ummm... illegally claiming to be white, even though that is what any "white" person does due to skin color. So, it's with a mixture of shame and defiance that Florence (Chelsea Binta) leaves her family behind. The consequences, to both sides of the family, are what the rest of the plot focuses on.

Florence's children and grandchildren appear as white as their father/grandfather. Her choice to hide apparently does not get revealed through DNA transfer in skin color. We meet, in the play, her daughter and three granddaughters (Devin Rodgers, Alyson Scadron Branner, Lindsay Evans and McKenna Turner). 

Florence's sister, Maxine (Dior Davenport), becomes a black activist, marries, has at least one child we don't meet, and two granddaughters we do (Marquicia Dominguez and Kia Pierce). Maxine becomes acquainted with Florence's daughter, Donna, when Donna moves into a neighborhood she can afford - aka the diverse neighborhood that Florence grew up in and Maxine remains in. 

Fertile ground is plowed in the script when the three white granddaughters figure out their grandmother was "black" and go looking for their cousins. Branner's role, Sandra, gets to be the outrageous and funny say-it-like-it-is sister who relishes how she now has a lot more to talk about, and maybe her kids might benefit by "minority status" in applications to college. 

There are a lot of laughs in the play, both easily enjoyable ones and uncomfortable titters, as we are forced to examine our own deeply buried (perhaps) thoughts about skin color, how we were raised, who we are now, whether we behave the way we believe, if we have knee-jerk reactions we'd rather not have. Sandra addresses head-on, in her way, whether it's ok to call people "black" or "African-American" and embarrasses her sisters by having "I'm Black and I'm Proud" as her ring-tone. 

So, kudos for considering and then creating this play and getting it on stage to help us all look inward and explore, and perhaps revise.

Now for hoped-for revisions:

The play grew from a ten minute short to a 30-minute short to what is now close to a two and a half hour marathon. It is massively too long and undercuts the challenge it presents to audiences to look inward by awkwardly inserting soap-opera-like elements.

The "how" the granddaughters find out Florence was black includes a sister who won't tell why she already had suspicions before they find a mysterious box. Scene after short scene simply ends when Michelle just doesn't answer her sisters' questions. It takes them forever to push back and finally get the answer: she had infertility tests which revealed sickle cell anemia genes (a gene known to most-often be a hereditary possibility among African-Americans). That fact is important, but the character development it adds is nil and the addition of some odd kind of cliff-hanger scenes is incomprehensible.

The interactions between Maxine's granddaughters and Florence's granddaughters are fun and interesting and there could be more there. There are realistic questions on the part of the "left behind" family as to why they should wish to interact with the "white" family that just found out they are "black." The question of who we are and who the world perceives us to be is quite important.

The relationship on stage between Florence and Maxine is also mysterious. Short scenes between the two of them at different decades of time show that they never reconcile, but not why. They don't include more information except one tangential mention that Florence had apparently reconnected with her parents and even financially supported them in their declining health, but Maxine didn't know.

There is a scene saved to the end that shows how Florence gets her idea to "pass" and that it could provide benefits. However, the reasons Florence chooses this direction are never made clear, and that is one potent area for theatrical exploration. There doesn't seem to be any fear that her choice will be revealed to her husband upon delivery of a child, which would add to her danger of discovery. 

There are some great moments in the play and some telling and intelligent exploration of the topic. Playwright Rachel Atkins has created interesting and unique characters who have distinct voices. There is almost material there for two plays, though, one between the sisters and one among the grandchildren! But for the moment, the substantive play has been allowed to grow with the help of cliche'd moments of melodrama that detract, bore, and release the audience from their tensions. Once released, we too often tune out and then ignore. There is too much here that needs attention to allow that to happen.

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