Saturday, May 21, 2016

On A Rap on Race

Last night I saw A Rap on Race, a new performance/play/whatever from the always wonderful Anna Deveare Smith and Donald Byrd. The play dramatizes the famous marathon conversation/debate between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin that was first distilled into a collection of LPs and then transcribed into a book. Except for one or two cues, the entirety of the dialogue is lifted word-for-word from the original LPs. The conversations are interspersed with violent dance numbers choreographed by Byrd and set to Charles Mingus. Julie Briskman plays Mead as a professor, always poised, always ready to pounce and defend herself when she must. Byrd himself plays Baldwin, effete, ironic, fun, and a little melancholic, constantly composing his sentences in his head, free styling in a voice that is one part gospel, one part Henry James, and one part what one critic once called "high faggot."

I never read the book or listened to the original conversation. I know very little about Mead. I've read I think six of Baldwin's books, but only one of them, Giovanni's Room, at all carefully. There's a lot of charisma in his prose as there was in Baldwin the man, but I've puzzled over many of his sentences through the years and I've still only been able gleam some of their meaning. He's an enigmatic man and an enigmatic thinker, refusing over and over again to fall back on any conventional wisdom. I find the comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Baldwin annoying because Coates is anything but enigmatic and is quite happy to serve as the town herald. I guess I have enough knowledge to guess that Mead's claims about how various cultures engage with white skin have probably been disproven and I know enough to know the voice of a white liberal when I hear it. But Mead comes across as the kind of intellectual who is most brilliant when she is wrong. 

In the post-play discussion an audience member said exactly what someone always needs to say when asked why they would adapt a conversation from 1970 for the stage. "Because it's still relevant and isn't that depressing." Byrd himself has an interest in many academic debates in the African-American Studies departments, particularly of "Afro-pessimism." I would like to offer at least one other reason why the play is so significant.

The dramatic high-point of the play comes as Mead and Baldwin debate the meaning of the word "exile." Baldwin calls himself an "exile" and demands that Mead call herself that as well. She denies the word over and over again, saying that she is at home everywhere, in Samoa and the States. In the post-play discussion Briskman claimed that on the original tapes Mead, that intellectual giant, is reduced to a four-year-old girl. She almost sounds meek as she sees her white liberal bullshit exposed. But Briskman doesn't play Mead as meek. In the play she is petulant and the repetition of the word "exile" between Mead and Baldwin does something on the stage it can't do on the page. The word takes on so many different meanings. It falls apart. You begin to ask, "If everyone can be an exile, does that mean no one is?" "If the black man must consider himself an exile in America, does the white man become an exile too the more he contemplates the black man, the more determined he becomes to explain why the black man is different?" "Who has claim to the continent and at what point if any does history stop impinging on the present?" 

Why do we need this play so much today? In an era in which our discourse has been reduced to "I Talk. You Listen" and in which we are constantly searching for the next successful white person to say something stupid so we can force him or her to wear the Scarlet Letter "R" and in which the word "privilege" has become a trite expression used by the self-important and which has itself been divorced of any meaning, it's a great pleasure to hear an interesting debate. Baldwin wins. He beats Mead, not because he is black and therefore the real expert on the subject of race. He wins because he understands the concept of irony and the elasticity of language, which is another way of saying that, unlike Mead the anthropologist, he understands what it means to be human, what it means to not have all the answers nor all of the questions.  

There are two more performances of A Rap on Race, tonight and tomorrow afternoon. You should see  it if you can. Hopefully, there will be more productions.

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