White actors performing in blackface as a mockery of African-American culture probably never did much to keep 19th-century Americans on their best behavior. Enormously exaggerated red lips, wooly wigs, raggedy clothes and shoe polish smeared across white faces, in fact, probably helped goad along the contagion of racism that once ran rampant — and, some would argue, still does — in America. These shows probably had a lot to do with the dehumanization of blacks that led to grotesque lynchings and violent riots.
Probably. With “probably” here being a synonym for “well, no shit.”
This being the case, one might wonder what possessed director JuLondre Brown ’10 to stage a play explicitly calling for the outrageousness of blackface to be mirrored in an equally outlandish way: a play that demands to be performed by black actors in white face. With racial issues on campus brought to an uneasy tension by slurs scrawled across a Pierson College wall in November and a snow-made swastika appearing on Old Campus about month ago, Brown’s choice to do this play is more than just daring — it’s timely.
Though it might seem inflammatory, Douglas Turner Ward’s play “Day of Absence” does not aim to mock whites the way blacks were once mocked by minstrel shows. Rather, it ridicules racism itself by portraying a southern white town filled with bumbling, incompetent bigots, and shows what happens when, suddenly, every black person in the town disappears without a trace. White mothers are at a loss over how to feed their own babies; shoes are left unshined; bathrooms reek for lack of deodorization — all a result of the town’s abrupt loss of its black, “miscellaneous dirty workers.” A reporter, the only actually white character in the play, puts it all in a nutshell when he states that without a black working class, “this town symbolizes the face of disaster.”
Unfortunately, the actors don’t take their performances far enough to be consistently effective. By the midway point, it is obvious they are uncomfortable both with putting on southern accents and spitting out racist slurs against other blacks. Jarring terms like “nigras” and “darkies” become common throughout the play, and perhaps they are why several of the white-faced actors momentarily jumble their lines.
But as the play progresses, “white” characters begin to realize just how sorely their town is in need of its black denizens. Of course, this is only expressed in such patronizing terms as those that the reporter uses when lamenting how policemen have been “denied their daily quota of negro arrests.” Nevertheless, this change in the characters’ attitudes sparks a positive change in the performances, culminating in the play’s best scene: The mayor (Jarrett Drake ’09, clearly the production’s strongest actor) pleads into a television camera for the blacks’ return. Falling to his knees, he holds up a shoe-shining brush and a towel while other characters bring in a mop, a plunger and a baby. “Don’ these things mean anything to ya? We want y’all back!” he cries in desperation, adding, “Even them questionable ones.”
The play concludes with a lone black man shuffling across the stage, sweeping the floor and humming to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” The two whites on stage stare in disbelief at Rastus (Nigel Tann ’11) and frantically ask over and over, “Where was ye yestaday?” Rastus firmly maintains that he never left, forcing Luke and Clem (Louis Daniels ’08 and Andrew Carter ’10, respectively) to come to the conclusion that “everyone’s back, things same as always.”
At least, until Clem ominously asks, “Or is it, Luke?” Whether this is supposed to imply change for the town is questionable since no one seems to have acknowledged the blacks’ status as more than just tools for survival. The added montage presented after the play’s conclusion, although powerful, only seems to confirm the ambiguity of this question: Pictures of race crimes from both 100 years ago and modern day flash in alternation, making clear the point that racism is still a problem.
Though it suffers from a few flaws, “Day of Absence” ultimately achieves its goal of highlighting the heinousness of racism that, 150 years after emancipation and 50 after the peak of the American civil rights movement, still manages to find a way onto our trees and dining hall walls. In any case, it’s a more meaningful version of white face than what the Wayans brothers attempted in 2004’s “White Chicks.”