Thursday, June 22, 2017

“Braggsville” is Well Worth the Visit

The main characters in Welcome to Braggsville (Alabastro Photography)
Welcome to Braggsville
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through July 2, 2017

The book, Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson, is branded as a sharp, incisive, and funny satire. The play, as adapted by Josh Aaseng and Daemond Arrindell for Book-It Repertory Theatre, is not particularly funny, though it keeps appellations such as sharp and incisive, and it is definitely challenging. It is extremely current, especially given the newly tragic death in “liberal Seattle” of another black person at the hands of the police. As much as we want to believe in some kind of post-racial society, we keep being shown that we have a long way to go to become what we may wish.

The topic at hand is whether our white, liberal conceits are pierce-able by reality on the ground and whether we can allow ourselves to learn and grow after setting aside our self-congratulations. The community that is teased the hardest, in the novel and play, is Berkeley college students. It begins with a diverse group of freshmen going to a party where one is supposed to put a dot “where you’d like to be touched.”

When they all put the dot in the middle of their foreheads, other party-goers excoriate them as lacking the sensibility to realize they were mocking Indians (the dots that are used to denote married or single) and after they are sent packing, they declare themselves the “four little Indians – from different tribes.” The four are: small-town Georgia white boy, D'aron (Zack Summers), feminist, white woman, Candice (Sylvie Davidson), the “kung fu comedian” Asian-American, Louis (Justin Huertas), and the black inner-city Chicagoan, Charlie (Dimitri Woods).
During class, D’aron reveals that each year his small town hosts a “Patriot Days” celebration, essentially a Civil War reenactment, and Candice jumps on the irony of it and proclaims that the town needs a “performative intervention.” She suggests that they pretend to be slave owners chastising a misbehaving slave and that this will somehow shame the town into realizing how racist they are.

As soon as they decide to go on this summer trip to D’aron’s town of Braggsville, Georgia, everyone in the audience can immediately understand that something bad is going to happen. Tragedy reliably happens and the second act of the play deals with the aftermath. There is a lot to unpack about what happened and why, and it takes a somewhat diligent audience to keep attentive to what unfolds.

The book is apparently somewhat non-linear and occasionally poetic. The play contains a kind of poetry narrator, Naa Akua, who gives microphones to characters and then sometimes badgers them about their speeches. This is not always crystal clear, but there is a compelling aspect to those inter-sections. Her repetition of words like “why” or “because” is a poetic mockery to rationalizations and “reasons.”

Additional cast with small but compelling roles include Chris Mayse as D’aron’s father, an enigmatic and almost menacing figure who contains contradictory feelings of both separatism and love-for-blacks at the same time, Rebecca M. Davis in roles such as a Berkeley counselor who supports D’aron’s struggle to belong at Berkeley, and Mia Morris as D’aron’s also-complicated mother.

The title of the book and play is a bit misleading. It seems to imply a rollicky good time in the manner of Dog of the South, perhaps (another Book-It adaptation). While it’s not that, it certainly is a great opportunity to explore our own racial biases and check our privileges.

Kudos to Book-It for choosing it and for mounting this complicated and interesting story and helping us open dialogue, within ourselves and with others, that must be had in order to make real progress in these difficult-to-articulate areas. It’s well worth seeing, even if you get a bit confused at times. Stick with it, listen hard, and open yourself to your own biases.

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