The Apocalypse. In fiction, the world falls to pieces because some outside force has infiltrated its defenses or some natural disaster changes the whole makeup of the planet causing a systemic crash. Playwright Douglas Turner Ward wrote Day of Absence, a satire about such a cataclysmic crash. It skews minstrelsy and stereotypes. The National Negro Ensemble debuted it in 1965.
To bring us into the world of Ward’s groundbreaking play, Theater Alliance gives its audiences a crash course into the singular American theatrical tradition of humiliation and degradation of black people, the American minstrel show. In prefacing Day of Absence with their own conception of a minstrel show, Theater Alliance has created one of the most profound, provocative and hilarious evenings you’re likely to see on a Washington stage this season.
If you had tickets to a minstrel show in the 1850’s you would have most likely seen white actors in grotesquely made up blackface. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design places posters of such shows all around the stage, putting the images of men with big red lips and toothy grins in direct view of the audience.
Minstrel shows were presented in three parts: music, variety show and a play.
Part One begins when Dylan J. Fleming appears in blackface makeup with a look of shame on his face until the cast enters carrying suitcases and singing a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem. He wipes the look — and the blackface — off and finishes the song with them.
What follows is the Olio, the variety portion devised by Theater Alliance, which starts with a game show, followed by several acts. Among the acts, a classic singer (Kasheem Fowler Bryant) and a ballerina (Kayla Warren) perform gracefully until unseen forces distort his song and turn her into a mammy. Two clowns (Dylan Flemming and Damondre Green, each hilarious) try to get the best of each other in Spy vs Spy fashion until a white gloved hand hands one a gun to do real damage. The audience gets plenty of chances to laugh and then question why they laughed.
Shamberger, who gives masterful performances in each of his roles, closes out this set as a salesman, who promises the audience “a chance to bid on something really special.” His skills and resources having been appropriated and diluted by white society, he no longer has a place to work nor does he have a place in this world where his culture is being erased. He starts the bidding on the only thing he has left.
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Which leads directly into Day of Absence.
Co-directors Angelisa Gillyard and artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell take the sendups of white stereotypes in Ward’s play and, through slapstick and exaggerated costumes and wigs, reflect the ugly, distorted and disrespectful images of America’s sins right back at the audience.
It’s morning in Ward’s imaginary Southern town. A day its white residents expect will be like any other, until they notice no black residents are getting on the buses to go to work. All black people, they learn, have mysteriously disappeared overnight; floors are going unmopped, streets unswept and babies uncared for. The white beneficiaries have been cut off from their benefits (underpaid and disrespected black labor) and become increasingly angry, sentimental, and frenzied over the course of the day.
The town government exhausts all options to bring black people back to where the white people consider they belong. They first check on the institutions where they have them under their control: the prisons and welfare offices. They knock on doors of the ghetto where the town has strategically placed them. But the missing citizens are nowhere to be found. Ward rips through these incidents with a careful eye, pointing out the failings of the institutions while not sacrificing any of the humor that comes from clueless citizens not knowing how to function without their help to provide domestic work and hard physical labor.
Day of Absence closes November 3, 2019. Details and tickets
The cast in whiteface dials the hilarity up to the max, broadcasting exaggerated expressions and inflections as if they were in a modern day minstrel show which, in fact, they are. Each cast member gets a moment to shine but Nia Savoy’s performance as Mary, a young mother who is lost without the mammy she’s had since childhood really stuck with me for how it straddled the line between over the top comedy and the darkness of a mother without the skills to take care of her own child.
Shamberger, as the town’s white Mayor, begs black people to come back, while at the same time demeaning them and trivializing their work. And a KKK member, who wants nothing more than to see all the “Nigras” gone for good, objects because they have left on their schedule and not his own.
Day of Absence comes at a time when black lives are being taken without repercussion and where people live in servitude to those who would only care about them if they were suddenly gone. Theater Alliance has issued a wake up call to us all, using satire to show the cracks in the system.
Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell and Angelisa Gilliyard. Featuring Damondre Green, Dylan Fleming, Jared Shamberger, Kaisheem Fowler Bryant, Charles Franklin IV, Kayla Warren, Ezinne Elele, Jonathan Del Palmer, Sisi Reid, Nia Savoy. Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra.Scenic Design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson.Sound Design by Kevin Alexander. Costume Design by Jeannette Christensen. Props Design by Amy Kellett. Technical Direction by Chris Foote. Master Electrician Elliott Shugoll. Scenic Artist Bridget Willingham. Stage Managed by Ricky Ramón. Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Evan Mouton.
Gregory Ford says
Super, comprehensive writing. Thank you.