Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Colored Contradictions

My power is in my madness, and my colored contradictions.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of being cast in George C. Wolfe's classic play, "The Colored Museum" at the oldest African American Cultural Arts Institution in the country (much love to The Mu!). Each of the 11 vignettes spoke to me in a different way and for different reasons. But the one that has inspired the most soul searching is "The Party".

If you're not paying attention, this scene is about a name-dropping, party girl who likes to dance. But upon closer review...

"Have y'all ever been to a party where there was one fool in the middle of the room, dancing harder and yelling louder than everybody in the entire place? Well honey, that fool was me! Yes, child, my name is Topsy Washington and I love to party!"

Well "anyone who knows anything about" Harriet Beecher Stowe or Uncle Tom (or La La L'Amazing Grace) knows that naming this character Topsy was sure to ruffle some feathers. Why, George? Why? You know we have a hard time coming to terms with those images!

She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas'r's parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging; and stood with her hands demurely folded in front of her. Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance -- something as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, "so heathenish..."

~ Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

I could go on and on about this Topsy thing, but there's so much more to the piece, I just can't waste time on the child's name!

"...now let me tell you 'bout this function I went to the other night, way uptown. And baby, when I say way uptown, I mean way-way-way-way-way-way-way-way uptown. Somewhere between 125th Street and infinity.

Inside was the largest gathering of black/Negro/colored Americans you'd ever want to see. Over in one corner you got Nat Turner sippin champagne out of Eartha Kitt's slipper. And over in another corner, Bert Williams and Malcom X was discussing existentialism as it relates to the shuffle-ball-change. Girl, Aunt Jemima and Angela Davis was in the kitchen sharing a plate of greens and just going off about South Africa.

And then Fats sat down and started to work them 88's. And the Stevie joined in. And then Miles and Duke and Ella and Jimi and Charlie and Sly and Lightnin' and Count and Louie! And then everybody joined in. I tell you all the children was just all up in there,

dancing to the rhythm of one beat.

Dancing to the rhythm of their own definition.

Celebrating in their cultural madness

So, hold up George, you tryin' to tell me that I can identify with Malcom & Angela's politics and still have love for mammies and minstrels? At the same time?? Are you sure? Shouldn't I be mad & fly into a rage any time anybody even mentions blackface or pickaninnies?

How on earth is a modern day black woman supposed to embrace these "embarrassing" images in our history?

Well, like with anything else - getting educated on the subject. So like any actor, I spend a good deal of my pre-performance time doing research. Making sure that my character (or anyone else in the play) is not saying anything that I don't understand 100%. Becoming familiar with the period during which the play's action takes place, as well as the cultural & political climate during which it was written. And my process preceding "The Colored Museum" certainly helped me reconcile with my colored contradictions.

All I knew about Aunt Jemima before was that I didn't want to leave the house looking like her, or else I would shame the family & by extension, the entire race. But there was a real person behind those pancakes. Her name was Nancy Green and she was born a slave. We look at her and feel shame, but she is the face of our immediate ancestry. And in the late 1800's I can't imagine that she looked much different than any other 59 year old former slave. Neither Ms. Green nor her contemporaries were trying to be America's Next Top Model, they weren't climbing or integrating the corporate ladder and my guess is that their day-to-day concerns had more to do with survival than future generations' embarrassment over the scarf on her head. And how embarrassed can we really be? Don't you cover your head with something from time to time? I sure do - when I cook, when I sleep, when it rains.

Knowing a little more about Nancy Green and the 6 women who subsequently represented the pancake giant, I still resist the urge to wear my bonnet outside my house (except for the occasional quick drive to my mother's house). But I respect the fact that she represented the product marketing & fashion trends of her time. And she paved the way for Tyson Beckford (Polo, Ralph Lauren) & Paul Williams, Fred Thomas, Charles Stone III and Scott Brooks (Budweiser / Whassup!).

Now that that's been cleared up & put in perspective, what about this minstrel thing? White folks + burnt cork = OFFENSIVE, no question, right? But what about Williams & Walker (a.k.a. The Two Real Coons)? Do they go into the same box I put the Wayans family in?

After getting a bit more below the surface, I have concluded that White folks + burnt cork = cultural appropriation at it's stereotypical worst. And it still doesn't give me a warm & fuzzy feeling. But when someone steals something from you, what better revenge than to steal it back!

Bert Williams was a natural entertainer, who earned his early living mimicking "the humble, shiftless, slouch Negro who could neither read nor write but who had a certain hard, and not altogether inaccurate, philosophy of life." I guess he figured, if they can do it, I can too. After partnering with George Walker, Williams went on to become internationally famous for his vaudeville shows. White audiences came out in droves, considering Blacks in blackface somehow more authentic. The Black performers in this time used their time on stage to alter long held stereotypes. In the early 1900's the torch was passed to Stepin Fetchit, who brought the coon to the motion picture screen and became the first Black actor to become a millionaire. Often, while making movies in which he found the lines offensive, he would skip or mumble lines he did not like, pretending to be too stupid to comprehend the script.

So these men and women were performers. They cashed in on an artform that made a mockery of their very existence. They became world renowned actors, songwriters and filmmakers. They put on "a show" so that 100 years later I wouldn't have to. Make no mistake, these were not necessarily the most glamorous or respected trailblazers in our history. But they certainly represent a part of our history that we need to pass on to generations to come. Otherwise, we'll have entire genres of entertainment that pander to the foolish stereotypes that the mainstream is comfortable with.

(Oh, wait, that's already happening.)

It's hard work, coming to terms with the contradictions. But I think that our culture suffers when we ignore the parts of our past that we don't like. They are all a part of us and they're not going away.

"Everything I need to get over in this world, is inside here, connecting me to everybody and everything that's ever been. So, honey, don't waste your time trying to label or define me, 'cause

I'm not what I was ten years ago

or ten minutes ago.

I'm all of that and then some.

And whereas I can't live inside yesterday's pain,

I can't live without it!"


Anonymous Rachel S said...

That's a good post. I'll link to it. I have to respond to the comments in my blog. I am standing with you on what you said.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Changeseeker said...

This is a well-presented post about a complicated issue. Beautifully done. Thank you.

(BTW, Burt Williams made $50,000 per week working for the Ziegfield Follies, as I recall, and still needed a White "sponsor" to get into the Press Club for a drink! Cute, huh?)

10:26 PM  
Blogger iaintlying said...

Princess, this post was very enlightening. Thank-you. I definitely learned something new.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Sadie said...

This makes me think about the social stereo types and marketing boxes that my own ethnic background has been put into. When someone is trying to get a deal, inevitably they are trying to "jew you down..", and our men's faces are constantly being exaggerated when it comes to the nose.

It is important to remember where we have come from. All of us. For we would not be who we are today with out it.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Damali said...

have you seen Spike Lee's Bamboozled? there's alot in the film that relates to this issue and i'm wondering what you thought about it...

as a dark-skinned women with African features and very kinky hair, i've spent my life coming to terms with these issues that you've raised.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Piscean Princess said...

-Rachel: thanks for the link (and the inspiration to finally put these thoughts in writing).

-Changeseeker: I was trippin' on how the black blackface performers had to stay in character before & after the shows.

-iaintlying: I'm glad you learned something here, 'cause I sure did. I think the best thing to come out of this post (that took me 2 full days to pull together) is that I finally have a technical word for the "stealing" that constantly annoys me.
Cultural Appropriation.

-Sadie(a.k.a. C. Coolstein): No doubt, girl. And as for the words that we choose, that is a whole 'nother post. Yet another that I've been sitting on for a while. I'm sure someone, somewhere, in the blogisphere or in the real world will inspire me to crank that one out soon.

-damali: I have seen parts of it. But during my research for this post, I realized that I need to see it in it's entirety. Knowing Spike, I'm sure that he put some humanity into the character who was willingly "doing the dance", making it an even more complicated issue. I'm putting it in my NetFlix queue right now & I'll let you know what I think once I've watched it.

I have been coming to terms with these issues, not so much as they relate to me, my look, my person, etc., but more so how I perceive others (ie. the Wayans, the Pine Sol Lady, the Radio One/Clear Channel Hip Hip community at large).

I struggled with the last section because I want to place value on the shuckin' & jivin' ways of these folks from wayback, but I've got no love for the ones who are effectively putting on the modern day coon show now. I deleted a whole paragraph at the end there about bills getting paid and babies being fed, 'cause it felt hypocritical. But at the end of the day, that's just another Colored Contradiction.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Changeseeker said...

This is one of those posts you just have to come back to over and over...good job. Guess I'm going to have to wind up posting about your post inspired by Rachel's post. Hey, cool!

You've got me remembering Shange's "Spell No. 7" and yes, "Bamboozled" (hard, hard to watch--get ready), and Berkeley's documentary, "Ethnic Notions"...intense topic.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Kyria said...

W.C. Fields said that Bert Williams was the funniest man he'd ever seen onstage, and the saddest man off ...

4:40 PM  
Blogger Piscean Princess said...

I watched Bamboozled last night. You were right, changeseeker...it was pretty difficult to watch. I knew that from the few times that I had tried to watch it over the years. I had to take a break after he first hour & 15 minutes. I really didn't think I could take anybody else jumping out of that mouth or that blackfaced, ultra-nigger-ized audience.

So glad I waited until I had done some research on the blackface & minstrel performers, so that I could identify their names and everything.

Satire is a difficult genre. Trying not to cross the line is a full time job, especially when the line is different for each person. One of the things that I liked so much about The Colored Museum is that the messages were fairly clear. There are very few times when the audience has the luxury of thinking that it is comedy just for the sake of being funny.

This was certainly not the case with "Mantan" & crew. I tried really hard to find the message and I kept coming up with nothing (beyond the obvious long-live-the-coon thing). Manray's character made me the saddest of all. Everybody else had a clue that there was something a little off about the whole thing, regardless of what side of the argument they were on. He reminds me of Nick from Black.White. The fact that Nick is probably very representative of his demographic (in terms of having no connection to his history) terrifies me.

Next up, "Spell No. 7" and "Ethnic Notions". I'm told that there is a book called Colored Contradictions, too. I may have to check that out.

9:30 AM  
Blogger judd grill & jason ortiz said...

Wonderfuly written, quick paced and poetic. A single something can be analysed in a lot of different ways, all of which capture different aspects of it, and all of which we may consider truth. Having said that, if we were to use the symbolic analytic knife there is no limit to the multitude of ways in which we could cut up our handful of sand. thanks for your comment it is much appreciated. and we are moved that you were touched.

2:32 PM  
Blogger sweet annie said...

I'm a former Cleveland area actor and director, and I love that Jimmie Woody was in this play, which is one of my favorites. I came this way from Granny Gets a Vibrator, and wanted to say hi.

Have you read any of Adrienne Kennedy's work? Her stuff is beautiful and spooky, drawing on a lot of issues about identity--and it's damn good theater.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Changeseeker said...

Omigosh, Princess, if you haven't seen (or at least read) Ntozake Shange's "Spell No. Seven," you are gonna SO freak when you do. You'll be out there on a street corner somewhere reading it outloud and in character for the passers-by. It'll do ya like that.

I think I was one of only a few "White" faces in the crowd when I first saw it years ago (the others left at intermission :-D). I felt as if I was peeping through a keyhole and would surely get hurt if I got caught. Nerve-wrackin'! (And beautiful.)

5:13 PM  
Blogger Piscean Princess said...

Changeseeker, I'm having trouble finding it. Is it in a collection of other works of hers or do I have to go through the channels of published theater works?


5:31 PM  
Blogger iaintlying said...

go to www.samuelfrench.com and you can order the script of Spell # 7
for $6.50 plus S&H. I'm sure it won't be the same as seeing it but at least you'll have it to read. Incidently, you can order all sorts of play scripts from them.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Piscean Princess said...

Thanks, iaintlying. I have never had to order from them (the scripts are always provided by the theater). I figured that was gonna be the way to go since I couldn't find it at the library or B&N.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous FolaSade said...

Your analysis of this piece is really thought provoking. Im 19 now but when I was 8 or 9 I used to perform this piece with theatrical group I was a part of. I was looking for the piece so I could re-memorize it for an audition, when I came across your blog. Im glad I did and your name:honey molasses ebony majesty chocolate brown sugar sweet epiphany is too cool:-)

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

11:03 AM  

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