Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Negro Ensemble Company celebrates its 50th anniversary with 'Day of Absence' revival

    I was thrilled when I learned the Negro Ensemble Company was reviving Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, the play that launched this esteemed group 50 years ago. I have been thinking since the W. administration, with its anti-immigrant leanings, that this brilliant satire about a mid-20th century southern town that falls into ruin after one day in which all of its "nigras" have disappeared would make a nice reflection of what our country, especially New York City, would be like if all of our immigrants, and their labors, vanished.

   I never could have imagined a Donald Trump presidency then, but with his racist comments and large racist following, as well as his anti-immigrant rants, Day of Absence is as timely as ever. What a great shame the production at Theatre 80 St. Mark's, which opened Sunday under Arthur French's direction, plays like a show in early rehearsals rather than an audience-ready performance.

   In more than a half century of theatergoing, I have never seen an actor less prepared than Charles Weldon who plays the Mayor, the play's most crucial role. Not only did he drop lines throughout, he skipped one part of the script by telling a fellow actor he wanted to "move on."  I was shocked and left the theatre deeply disappointed.

     The next day I asked the press agent, Jonathan Slaff, if Weldon had been a last minute replacement.  "Not last minute," he said. "Just a big, difficult part to memorize within the rehearsal time that Equity allows, which is sometimes insufficient."

   I have never experienced such a shoddy performance in any other Off-Broadway productions, with presumably the same rehearsal time.  If Weldon, who is NEC’s artistic director, wasn't ready he should have been on book or the opening delayed so this extraordinary play could be appreciated by a new audience. I am grateful I got to see it in the powerful production it deserved at Baltimore's CenterStage in the 1990s.

    The play is a brilliant piece of satire.  With a twist on the old minstrel shows that featured white actors with black faces, Day of Absence features a black cast in whiteface.  In the speeded up nature of satire, the play shows a town decline into chaos by midnight on the day the white residents, who aren’t used to lifting a finger for themselves, wake to discover all the black residents have mysteriously vanished.  Not even “a little black dog” can be found.  Babies wail because their mothers have no idea how to change or care for them, garbage piles up uncollected, public restrooms are filthy and stink, old people are dying with no one to care for them and 75 percent of all productivity has been paralyzed. The town is on the verge of hysteria and turns to the Mayor to solve the problem.

     At first the Mayor feels confident in his power, ordering an extensive search.  When that turns up empty, he tries to borrow some nigras from surrounding towns, but those residents refuse, claiming they don’t have enough for themselves.  He then tries a television appeal, telling any of his black citizens who are listening that “the South has always been glued together by its relationship with its darkies” and that they should remember all the good times shared “singing those old coon songs” and come home because everyone misses “your cheerful, grinning, happy-go-lucky faces.” 

     By the end, he is on his knees desperately begging for them to return, promising to kiss the feet of the first nigra to come back.

     When this is well done, it’s a thrilling piece of theatre.  Even reading this part was life-changing for actor Charles S. Dutton, who told me his story when I interviewed him nearly a decade ago.  He said he discovered the play by accident while serving time in solitary confinement in a Baltimore prison. Known as “the hole,” solitary was a room with no furniture or windows, no sink or toilet – just a drain in the middle of the floor on which the confined person slept.

     Prisoners were allowed to take one book with them, although the only light came from the slit between the door and the floor. Dutton had wanted to take a book about revolution, a book to keep him angry, but in his haste when the guards came for him, his finger grabbed a book of one-act plays his girlfriend had given him. He didn’t realize his mistake until he was in solitary.  He had never read or seen a play and wasn’t at all interested in them, but with several long days and nights to kill, he started reading.  The Mayor’s monologue blew him away, so much so that he felt called to perform it at the prison talent show.

     He asked permission but was refused because a high school degree or equivalency was required.  So he worked to get his GED, memorized the monologue and, with no acting experience, delivered it to a room full of really rough men.  As they warmed to him, they began laughing and picking up on the satiric message.  He told me he realized he had them in the palm of his hand and he felt that power.  He realized if he didn’t follow up on this gift he would spend the rest of his life incarcerated.  So he went around to all of his gangs and told them he wouldn’t fight anymore and he worked to get his associates degree. 

     In two years he was released and completed his college degree in acting at Towson State University. In yet another amazing event in his life, he was awarded a scholarship to the Yale School of Drama, thus going from jail to Yale in two years.  When he graduated he earned a role in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The New York Times called it the most unusual debut in Broadway history.

    So Dutton’s life was turned around because of Douglas Turner Ward’s play. Ward was one of the founders, in 1967, of the Negro Ensemble Company, which nurtured many of our great actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Denzel Washington, Adolph Ceasar, Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, and Phylicia Rashad.

     Day of Absence was first produced at the St. Mark's Playhouse in 1965. It was directed by the author, ran for 504 performances and won the Drama Desk Award for Playwriting in 1966. Scholars now consider the play an example of the best non-musical satire of its period.

     My personal experience with Ward dates back to the early 70s when I was in high school and ushered at CenterStage.  Ward was the first Willy Loman I ever saw when that theatre presented the first all-black production of Death of a Salesman, several decades before Broadway would mount its first all-black production of an American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 2008. Arthur Miller came for the opening.  Having not yet read the play, so not knowing the story, I was deeply moved by Willy’s death and couldn't stop thinking about the play. It was the first time I had been that touched by a theatrical experience.

     In the years that followed, whenever I read Death of a Salesman I always pictured that Baltimore cast and set.  It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn in 1985 to get my MFA in playwriting and read it again and discovered, Oh, these are Brooklyn Jews. It’s only the speech patterns that make them that way. Otherwise they are American characters regardless of race or religion. 

     I’m glad I have my CenterStage memories to overcome Sunday’s experience at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, and I hope Day of Absence will have a worthy revival soon.

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