I admit it. I’ve often avoided facing history. Especially history from the period of African-captivity known as American Slavery. I’ll read history but avoid seeing history, especially this period, because of the pain that it conjures up in me. So, it was with some trepidation that I went to see the play Harriet Jacobs, presented by Underground Railway Theater, playing until Jan. 31 at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge (Massachusetts). The play is inspired by the autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
I went because it was written by playwright Lydia R. Diamond. I know her. I’ve seen and read other plays by her. She is a superb playwright with keen intelligence, substantial wit and a technician with having the emotional center and central points of her plays sneak upon you. She’s not a wham-bam playwright like August Wilson who never lets up. He pummels ideas with language that is so fiercely, so cleverly rooted in Black urban culture that its like the walking bop that many Black men used to do (before this generation got into wearing their pants below their asses). Ms. Diamond is not a wizardly word smith who plays with words and images just for the fun of them whether they make sense, have a point or are in any way important or necessary*, like Suzi Lori Parks.
She graciously taught a playwright mentorship for ACT Roxbury when I was director there. So, I went, knowing that this play, based on the incredible life of Harriet Jacobs was gonna have some pain. (I don’t like to feel pain in public spaces, hence my refusal to see Precious in the movie theatre.)
I also went because my dear friend, Mary, one of the playwrights who’d been mentored by Lydia wanted to go and so I knew I had someone I could lean on if the subject matter got too deep. (Once there, I discovered to my delight that another of the students in the Playwright Mentorship program, Denise Washington, was Assistant Director of this production. Thanks, DW, for giving a shout-out to ACT Roxbury and the mentorship in your biographical statement.)
Harriet Jacobs, the play, is deep and difficult. It pulls you low-down. It shows the inner-lives of the slaves and the ordinary moments they managed née dared have despite the oppressive situations in which they lived. It shows the myriad costs of the institution. That some slaves could have the fortitude to triumph through the institution is important to broadcast again and again. So despite the tears and anger it brought up in me, I am glad I saw it and recommend that you do, too. It closes on January 31, so there’s not much time to see it. (The actors are magnificent working wonders in the small space with an appropriately minimal set.)
Having gotten through this one, I plan to go ‘head on and see another play based on the more recent history of the Civil Rights era, next week, The Good Negro. Written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Summer L. Williams of Company One,. It will end its run on February 6.
I guess I have to grow up, toughen up, and achieve balance between remembering and honoring history versus wallowing. and getting stuck in it It seems to me that, unlike my Jewish friends, African-Americans don’t plumb and revisit our history with the same depth or frequency. It is one of the reasons that certain films, like Rosewood, Amistad and Beloved bombed. Many of us don’t care to look at that painful history. But think of Schindler’s List, which was widely heralded.
I have matured to the point that I now know what to do with the pain – not only of the physical hardships but of the lingering psychological scars, societal wounds and what it means when one group of people feel innately superior to another.
I know that Black people do not have a monopoly on pain. The ability of human beings to be cruel to one another whether they are brethren from the same culture or strangers from different cultures never ceases to amaze me. It is difficult to bear witness but bear witness I must (in manageable doses). If Harriet could live through her pain I can certainly witness it and learn from it.
(*I know this is pointedly judgmental but hey, it is my blog, my opinion after all. I am one of the few people who didn’t like or respect the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Top Dog, Under Dog, by Ms. Parks despite it’s admittedly riveting dialogue.)
FYI – Another of Lydia R. Diamond’s plays will grace the Boston area when Stick Fly, directed by Kenny Leon, runs at The Huntington Theater from Feb. 19 to March 21, 2010.