Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Make “Reparations” a requirement!

Reparations (Aaron Jin)
Sound Theatre Company
(at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute)
Through Feb 2, 2020

Trauma is not individual. Whatever an individual experiences with trauma radiates out from that individual to all the others in the circle – family, friends, all associates. Once trauma changes the individual, trauma also changes others. This is the fundamental subject that Darren Canady tries to illuminate in his searing new play, Reparations, commissioned by Sound Theatre Company.

But wait? (You might ask.) Isn’t the play about Black people wanting or needing “reparations” for slavery? Isn’t this a political play?

The play tries to answer the question of “why” Black folks feel that some important recognition and/or compensation should be offered to Black families. This play doesn’t start with slavery. This play starts back only a couple of generations to the early 1920s when the KKK attacks, burns and lynches Black parents of three children in their home.
The play follows the children and their offspring forward in time to a time slightly in the future of today. Canady uses a science-fictional device, a “blood memory” device that can process a person’s blood so they can see and experience – as if they are there – their direct ancestors’ memories. But the device must be used in the location the memories occurred in.

Rory (Aishe Keita) is the great-great-granddaughter of the lynched ancestors and through this device she (and the audience) goes back to the night of the lynching. She is helped to do this by an Indian-American, Pramesh (Bharan Bikshaandeswaran), who works for an Oklahoma government agency dedicated to calculating and paying “reparations.” Rory very much hopes for a large pay-out so she can escape Oklahoma and travel toward her dreams.

Her grandmother, Billie Mae (Tracy Michelle Hughes), is totally against this program and its money. She is a suspicious woman and never talks about the past. Rory has the burden of taking care of Billie Mae now that she is disabled but desperately wants to stay in her home, the family’s generationally-owned farmhouse.

Surrounding these characters are three cast members who play various family members in both the past and the present. Brandon Mooney, Allyson Lee Brown and Anthony Lee Simmons provide solid support in their characters and also jump to the 1950s to reveal a secret Grandma Billie Mae has been keeping all these years.

Both the lynching and the family secret have created legacy trauma for these descendants. Mostly likely due to the lynching and the fact that the three kids had to grow up without parents to guide them, their offspring suffered from those kids becoming parents who didn’t know as much as they should have about good parenting. So, perhaps that is why the secret family trauma happened.

Should we somehow compensate families with histories of lynchings? Will that change things for their descendants? The play becomes a bit convoluted in the middle with the implication that government agencies never really deliver what they promise and funding often suddenly disappears.

Billie Mae asks her grandchild, “Well where you gonna draw the line, Rory? … Or hell, why not go back and figure out what slave ship brought our people over here. Or what tribe sold them out to the white folks. Or why Eve ate the damn apple--!” All of those are good questions to ask as we reflect how our society and our government could or should compensate for the trauma caused by racism and capitalistic use of slave labor.

Still, as much as Billie Mae wants to think by keeping quiet she is keeping trauma to herself, her own behavior betrays trauma’s effect on her. This is a universal truth.

The play could use some trimming and tightening and far less dependence on the government agency and its representative (he could disappear with his agency). What is undeniable is that Canady has a great facility with dialogue, and the relationship he created between Rory and Billie Mae is wonderful.

Hughes and Keita are transcendent to watch and the production is exquisitely directed by Jay O’Leary. The play does not “hit at” the audience to make one feel somehow responsible, but cuts open the feelings at the heart of the issue of reparations and the complexities we all face in recognizing that trauma and terrible actions took place, yet not knowing how to help change the underlying racism. It certainly makes it clear that we must try.

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