Lots is being written these days about just what constitutes “whiteness” and why we might need to figure this out before it’s too late. I’ve recently seen two plays that confront this question in ways that make a white person like me extremely uncomfortable. I’m grateful to the playwrights involved since I grow fastest when I stay in a state of existential discomfort. The plays to which I refer are “Blood Knot” by Athol Fugard and “White Noise” by Susan-Lori Parks. Fugard was a white South African playwright who understood very early on the price paid both by blacks and whites who were living in South Africa under apartheid rule. Parks is an American black playwright who brings that price into sharp focus as she anatomizes what it’s like being black in America these days. I fantasize every now and then about a scene in which the two of them are exchanging knowledge and criticism across time and culture, but all I have are the texts of their plays and my experience in the audience at each performance. I
Fugard’s play is about two half-brothers, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned. After leaving his home to venture into a world in which I assume he tried to pass, the light-skinned character, Martin, returns home to the tiny squalid apartment where his dark-skinned brother, Zacariah, lives. Zacariah works at as a garbage collector and returns home at night almost unable to walk because his feet hurt him so badly. His brother, who suffers from a version of OCD, always has the same basin of hot water laced with a package of foot balm ready. Unable to work himself, he is a house-husband who puts food on their table, makes the beds, and keeps as much order as is possible in such a ramshackle abode. Though Fugard makes Martin more verbal and “educated” than Zacariah, it is Zacariah who turns out to have more capacity to feel and connect than his emotionally damaged brother. The plot thickens because Zacariah answers a listing in a dating service and is immediately “liked” by a woman who wants to come visit. It’s obvious to us that she is white, so Martin tries to explain to his excited brother that there is no way the two of them can possibly be a couple. In a stunning turn, Fugard has Zacariah convince Martin that he can meet the white girl since he “looks” white. Zacariah spends money they don’t really have getting his brother a suit, white shirt, tie, new shoes, hat and even an umbrella because, as Zacariah puts it, “White people with class carry umbrellas–and it might rain.” The moment Martin dons the clothes befitting someone who is not a black of any shading, his entire personality changes. First it’s how he wakes–strutting rather than creeping hunched over and looking down. Eventually, after.demeaning Zacariah verbally, Martin even yells “nigger” at him, bringing tremendous pain to the one person who loves him. Though Fugard ends this powerful play by having the half-brothers agree to return to their original patterns, this play leaves me as a white person in the audience clear enough about what the playwright wants me to carry away from the theater.
Similarly, in her play just recently having closed to a full run in New York City, Susan-Lori Parks shows me what :”whiteness” means. In “White Noise,” Leo, the central character opens the plays by telling us he sleeps very badly because he can’t free himself from the white noise in his head. Though he duplicates for us the sound this s sets up, I know Parks means me to understand that we white people are the white noise plaguing people like Leo. This play has four characters, two white and two black, two men and two women. At the outset they are sorted into two mixed-raced heterosexual couples, though by the end no one is able to be in relationship with anyone. Early on Leo rushes in holding a sheaf of official documents and telling his friends he has an idea of how he can rid himself of the noise keeping him from sleep–he asks his good white friend Ralph to buy and own him for 40 days. Initially Ralph is adamant about not doing any such thing, but within minutes he has been convinced by Leo to sign the document. They need two witnesses and, though the black woman character begins to stalk off stage reminding Leo that they have known each other since childhood, Leo tells her that very closeness is why she must help him. The white female character who is a do-good liberal lawyer has become the third and final signatory and the pact is set up. Ralph all-too quickly begins to enjoy ordering his old friend around doing mundane things like polishing his shoes and making lunch. Though there are moments when they share a beer and some palaver on the sofa, Ralph keeps returning to being “master” as he thinks up new things for Leo to do.
At one excruciating painful moment for me, Ralph enters with a real heavy metal collar used during slavery times and makes Leo put it on. Though all my impulses were to leave the theater, I stayed because Parks needed me to keep witnessing just how easy it is being for a seemingly open-minded white person to give over to a system in which one human body is “owned” by another human body who visits cruelty upon the owned simply because he can. The play’s four-some has always gone bowling as a way to have fun together and Leo is the best of the group, so at one point Ralph reminds him that bowling twelve strikes in a row is championship play. So Ralph orders his “slave” to do that right away. Leo racks up one strike after the other and Ralph becomes more and more excited, until Leo stops at eleven and says “I’m tired.” That simple expression infuriates Ralph, after ordering a couple of more times, pulls out a gun and screams “BOWL!” We have learned before this contest begins that Leo has absented himself for a while to go to a library and look up his African ancestry. With a gun pointed at him, he begins to tell Ralph (and us) about that ancestry, a recital that clearly empowers Leo. Face to face with his slave master and his weapon, Leo refuses to make the final victorious strike in a white man’s game. Ralph is suddenly overcome by what he has done and who he has.become and flings his gun and then himself onto the floor. As he weeps loudly, Leo seems to add inches to his height as he recites a few more facts about the heroism of his ancestors and the play ends.
Even though Ralph has firmly declared to Leo shortly before the end that he will never be free of the white noise and that “I put it there,” making clear to the audience what Parks intends all along, i.e., for whites to come to grasp that we want and even need for blacks not to be able to “sleep,” i.e. rest easy. Rather we need them to remember at every moment that we are the ruling class, so they must obey and stay alert.
I know there are important books being written and speeches being given by critical race theorists and practitioners illustrating this same point. Such books and talks are part of my continuing education project about just how embedded racism and notions of white supremacy are in me and my white neighbors. But seeing these two works of literature where words spoken and actions displayed make it impossible for me to escape this destructive reality rampant in my culture has heightened and brightened my awareness. Great art always prevents our being able to escape in time to protect ourselves from feeling crucial emotions. And it is those emotions that have a chance of breaking through the defenses built up over generations and centuries. So I’m deeply grateful to have been in the two audiences where Fugard and Parks were able to move me a little further along the rocky road to clarity.