Monday, September 14, 2015

Guess Whose Coming To Dinner?

“Things of Dry Hours," by Naomi Wallace.  Produced by Frank Theater. Playwrights' Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

This is a rare play about a radical black worker and his daughter living in a shack in 1932 Birmingham, Alabama – a shack that hears the ‘knock on the door’ that they most fear and yet expect.  He is an unemployed steel worker in the Communist Party; she does washing for rich white people in the city.  It’s the Depression and they barely survive.  Rarely do plays sympathetically portray Marxists and labor agitators or the issue of class.  Rarely do plays talk about the almost unbridgeable gulf between black and white people.  This one does.  The Communist Manifesto, the Bible and an apple all provide grist for this narrative about working class struggle, the real nature of ‘whiteness’ and betrayal. 

A Scene from the play
The play is a hostage drama, though it is not always clear who is the hostage, the white visitor or his black 'hosts.' The play introduces a dialectic between a white man, Corbin, who has ostensibly killed a foreman at the steel plant and needs shelter in their shack; an older black worker, Tice, who swears on both the big Bible and the thin Communist Manifesto; and his somewhat tough daughter Cali, who is not political yet still sees what is.  Corbin threatens Tice and Cali that if they throw him out of their shack, he will somehow inform on them.  So they are forced to put up with him.  Corbin makes sexual moves on Cali, and eventually she wants to be with him.  Tice says no, for his own knowledgeable reasons.

In a role reversal in one scene, the white man Corbin puts on black face paint and the black woman Cali puts on ‘white-face’ paint.  She humiliates him as she has been humiliated by her rich Birmingham employers; she threatens him as she has been threatened by all white folks; he stands ‘buck’ naked before her as black men stood ‘buck’ naked before white planters in slave auctions.  In a twist, old man Tice is more educated than this young, pale, button and steel worker, who is originally from Muscatine, Iowa and doesn't know how to read.  Tice attempts to teach Corbin to read – in a reversal of the process whereby slaves were forbidden education.   He talks to him about Hayden; he reads to him from the Manifesto; he tries to recruit him to the Party; he points out that whiteness is a concept and a social category, not a biological imperative. YOu can see that, while a poor working man who might need some educational help, all this is over Corbin's head. 

Tice knows that the only hope they have if this white man is an informer or police agent is to ‘turn him’ into a class conscious ally - even an ostensible Party member.  Tice never double-checks Corbin's story, but perhaps because he knows the answer - that it is not true and Corbin never killed anyone. 

The dialectic of these discussions and a certain kiss are intentional.  There is the play of the unity of opposites, as all here are workers, though not all are the same ethnic and class-level category.  There is process of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis between Marxism and incoherent working-class consciousness, which clash in these discussions.  Cali eventually becomes an activist after these events, showing that people can understand eventually, though not perhaps the people you are aiming at.  And quantity into quality develops, as the essence of this mutual hostage system becomes very clear. 

Corbin knows that the Communist Party is the only organization in 1932 Birmingham that had both black and white workers in it. It was led by black workers, who made up the majority – and numbered nearly 500 members.  This is the Jim Crow ‘South’ in which the Party and organizations like the Sharecropper’s Union or the unemployed or relief organizations are virtually illegal.  Members face death, beatings or job losses from cops and the Klan.  Wallace mentions that the Klan is made up of the 'best' people in town, who use linen for their hoods.  Things don’t change much - now they just wear suits. 

The play begins and ends with poetic soliloquies by Tice.  They center on an apple, which he cuts in half at the end.  Is it the apple of knowledge from the Garden of Eden?  Does it represent the (black) seeds of black revolutionary leadership within the white surrounding fruit?  Is the apple the unity of black and white? The juice of life? Your call.

Unfortunately the labor movement we see in in fiction, history or theater is set in the heroic period of the 1930s.  This portrayal of the past keeps us from modernizing and grasping the present state and future of the world labor movement.  This play is part of that nostalgia, attempting to resurrect an admittedly valuable ghost - but one that is stillborn at present.  For most it will not succeed, but will instead historicize the Marxist movement and its relation to the black struggle.  A step to know the past, but modernity is really needed.  The struggle is now.

The author Naomi Wallace is a radical playwright who has been produced locally at Macalester College and also at Frank Theater prior to this.  She was born in Kentucky and now resides in the U.K.  Local history professor Peter Rachleff took part in the Sunday question and answer session and also helped on the play itself.  The music interludes are beautifully chosen by Frank, with old-time and labor songs by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and others. The actor playing Tice heroically stepped in at the last minute due to the sickness of the original actor, and had to read from a script.  But it somehow fit.

The play was based on the classic history book about Communists in the Alabama labor movement, “Hammer & Hoe,” which is for sale at Mayday.  Another Frank Theater play reviewed below is “Love and Information.”  Books relevant to Alabama in the 1930s are “Slavery By Another Name,” (reviewed below) which traced forced black prison labor in the coal mines, steel plants and turpentine camps, especially around Birmingham.   

The Play runs until October 4th. Please attend!

Red Frog
September 14, 2015

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