I sat in seminar on Wednesday afternoon and read the first page of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The “atmosphere,” Whitman proclaims in the poem, is “for my mouth forever… I am in love with it.” The “smoke of my own breath,” he says, is “my respiration and inspiration.”
Those lines — an expansive embrace of the world, transcending the body — entered my mind on Wednesday night, as Leland Fowler (DRA ‘15) stood on a bed frame, slowly tightening a noose around his neck, and said: “Couldn’t see nothing but my breath, hanging there in front of me, my last breath.” His character is a man who, rather than being in love with the atmosphere, is in bitter and perpetual battle with it.
A sense of being trapped in one’s own body — that is the predicament articulated so well in Yale Cabaret’s startling one-man play “50:13,” written by Jiréh Breon Holder (DRA ‘16) and directed by Jonathan Majors (DRA ‘16). The audience is seated so as to surround a prison cell which has been placed in the middle of the Cabaret’s small venue, and its members are forced into the uncomfortable position of watching Fowler through bars, illumination coming from two harsh, white lights. Dramatic tension is built into the set: how will the audience penetrate the cell? How will Fowler’s character, Dae Brown, escape it?
At the play’s start, Brown has three days left in prison, and he yearns to be reunited with his girlfriend and infant child. A young adolescent boy occupies the cell adjacent to his, and Brown, having grown fond of him, feels urgently impelled to teach the boy all he knows of black manhood before his sentence is up. Over the course of the three days, Brown transforms occasionally into his father and his grandfather, immediately and impressively switching into new accents and body languages — in short, as one would hope an actor could, becoming a new person.
The boy in the next cell over is not actually portrayed: Brown addresses him by looking into a camcorder outside the cell which broadcasts to four television screens on the cell’s sides. So when Brown tells the boy, “You gotta know when to sit still, do your time, and survive,” he is looking into the eyes of every audience member — each of whom is put in the place of the young black man and therefore becomes Brown’s pupil.
Brown’s body is caged, but throughout the 50-minute production, his spirit escapes the cell’s confines through feats of memory, music, love and humor. When he reads aloud a letter from his beloved, he is suddenly in her bed again. When he slips into the role of his sharecropping grandfather, he is transported to Fulton County, Georgia.
Most remarkably, toward the play’s end, Brown breaks out into an a cappella reworking of Tupac Shakur’s “Hail Mary.” He starts off sitting sullenly on the edge of his bed, but soon a bounce enters his step and musical backing begins to play. “Come with me, Hail Mary,” he sings, drawing out “Mary” across four notes. Fowler possesses a superb voice, and the performance is achingly beautiful. Why does he sing? How does the song fit into the plot? I don’t know, but I’m sure that’s the point. His joy is beautiful because unexpected.
The show’s central sequence is surely the telling of the lynching story: the grandfather’s firmness in defending his little girls from bullying, the ensuing showdown between the families, the horrifying explosion of violence and the final noose-tightening speech. “I was a man,” he says defiantly. “They saw me be a man.”
One is left to hope that being a man, and being a father, will entail a very different life for Dae Brown than for his grandfather and for his father, who, we learn, first met Dae in a prison cafeteria.
His girlfriend’s letter says that Brown’s son is on the verge of taking his first steps, and so when Brown leaves prison, he is eager to witness the milestone, invigorated by the thought of his family’s bright future. But like “Hail Mary,” with its melancholic undertone, Brown’s optimism is tempered — by having to abandon the boy in the neighboring cell and by his violent cultural inheritance.
Brown reaches the show’s end, then, hopeful but humbled. I’m sure playgoers will feel the same way.