“You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”- Bob Dylan
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a comedy in the sense that it has a happy ending. However, we only get to that happy ending by overlooking, accepting and/or not questioning the cruelty in Prospero’s governance of the island.
I have always been aware of overlooking the contradiction between Prospero’s plea for justice for himself and the way he treats Ariel and Caliban. But I was willing to allow the playwright his “given circumstances” and I thought that was what the playwright was directing me to do. After all, Caliban is treated as an object of derision who is not worth paying serious attention to.
Stormy Weather, the current offering of The IN Series, brings my attention to the fact that I can stop and look at it a different way. And that it is important to do so. An integral aspect of Prospero’s contradictory and cruel governance of the island he finds himself on is the erasing of the voice of Sycorax, a woman of African heritage (Algiers). He does this through torturing, enslaving and, demeaning Caliban, her son. (It is shocking to allow myself to hear and acknowledge in Prospero’s treatment of Caliban the template for the treatment and way we unquestioningly can look at Black men: Caliban is called a monster, his demand for sovereignty over his own body and space is dismissed, and Prospero makes every effort to keep Caliban from sexually connecting with his daughter, Miranda.)
Stormy Weather restores to our reading of The Tempest – and, by extension, to the western canon – the voice of people of African heritage as embodied in Sycorax, and it explores how that voice may have managed to survive.
Playwright Sybil Williams keeps three characters from The Tempest: Caliban, Prospero and Ariel, and she brings in Sycorax. And she effectively interpolates a fifth, though uncredited, character, Billie Holiday, by having Ariel sing Billie Holiday songs throughout the play. Williams presents Billie Holiday/Ariel as not merely a supremely talented individual artist possessing a flexible gender presence but as a carrier and caretaker of African keys to survival, resilience, spontaneity. The phenomenon of a woman spirit that arises and reincarnates in different personae and different times, always maintaining the same essence of the African gods, reminds me of Ishmael Reed’s novel “Mumbo Jumbo,” in which he describes a phenomenon (Reed identifies it as a “liturgy”) – called “jes’ grew,” a phenomenon that is embodied in the music of Black folk. This liturgy, Reed says “is seeking its words: Its text. For what good is a liturgy without a text?”
In Stormy Weather, the liturgy is embodied in Sycorax, and manifests or is channeled through Billie Holiday/Ariel, who gives voice to the liturgy, in the songs they sing, by the way they interpret them.
Billie Holiday/Ariel’s interpretations of these songs becomes the aforementioned text and a guide to understanding, surviving and engaging with this colonialism, this European dominance (and its accompanying misdirection and misassignment of human value, origin and relationship as experienced by “Black” people in the 20th century, and as embodied by Prospero in “The Tempest”).
Stormy Weather is not the only work to undertake this restoration of the African presence in the western canon. A conversation between Peter Sellars and Toni Morrison led to a play by Morrison called Desdemona which placed the spotlight on Desdemona’s African nanny Barbery. Dane Edidi’s Klytemnestra, reclaimed the African and womanish roots in stories preserved in Greek male telling. Is this a trend? Why would anyone want to do this?
If it is true that the entire world is currently living in a crisis [the phenomenon of “climate change” being not the least of the crisis], is it possible that in the process of searching for a resolution to that crisis, a reevaluation of the cultural paradigm that has guided us until now may be in order?
Stormy Weather closes October 27, 2019. Details and tickets
At one time, there were some people who thought the ideals embodied in the United States Declaration of Independence were, well, self-evident. In fact, some people may have thought that since the conclusion of the American Civil War, these ideals were what most citizens of the United States aspired to, even when we did not achieve them. Government of the people, by the people and for the people was the goal articulated by many United States citizens.
With the election of 2016, it became clearer that not everyone aspired to that belief, and that domination of the world by white, heterosexual, wealthy men – the victors of the wars since 1492, maybe – at the expense of anyone who is not white, heterosexual, wealthy and male was an aspiration of many others. Integral to the achievement and maintenance of this latter aspiration has been the silencing, torturing, killing, enslavement, demeaning and disappearing of people of African heritage (and variations on that treatment perpetrated more or less on anyone else, depending upon where they lie on the spectrum of non-whiteness).
In one reading of the story of The Tempest, Prospero is the archetype for European colonialism, as someone who lands on a place by happenstance then claims it as his own possession, enslaving the indigenous peoples of the land. At the end of The Tempest and Stormy Weather, Prospero gratefully, joyfully and maybe with some remorse surrenders his magic and his island.
I wonder will we be so lucky?