Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sitcom Slaves

Slavery is back in style. It's trending in the arts world, in film and on stage, through curated museums. The unearthed American psyche is pulsing with unapologetic delight. Racism is over (at least according to over 60% of white Americans) so now gawking attention can be paid to bloody roots of American society. 

Kara Lee Walker's exhibit "Subtlety" had lines wrapped around the block to see an enormous Mammy-Sphinx with enormous breasts, butt and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief wrapped around her head. The warehouse-size sculpture was made out of sugar and mostly white crowds flocked to take hilarious pictures of themselves by the enormous slave's butt crack, vulva, or breast area while making funny faces. Obviously "Subtletly"lived up to its title for many in the crowd who shoved faux fists up the slave's ass in order to post to their Facebook wall.

On stage, "An Octoroon" had an incredibly successful run as a re-imagining of a 19th century play about slaves and a 1/8 racially mixed woman. In the new hipster version slaves lounge around cracking jokes like in a sitcom, talking in contemporary urban vernacular. Audiences roared with laughter, again mostly white and privileged. On the day I saw the play, my seat neighbor was a Latino woman who rolled her eyes throughout the piece while the crowd delighted in the sassy, funny slave homegirls chatting it up while they idly plucked cotton with their fingers like they were doing rote office work. The audience in back of me were two well-known black artist who sat rigid the whole time and quickly fled the play afterward. 

Last night I caught "Father Comes Home From the War," another play that re-imagines slavery for a white audience as a slight inconvenience. The author doesn't bother to explain the conundrum of why if it's such a slight quibble, are people willing to die to escape the white collar doldrums and hum drums of the sitcom slave. In the first act of the play, the slaves enter joking about the approaching day, taking bets on what the protagonist is going to do, and remaining as chatty and free as "The View" panel. A guitarist sits on stage strumming and giving the scene the mood of warm nostalgia and home-life. A female slave suggests to her lover that they go back to the cabin and spend all day in bed. She must have banked her slavery vacation days to afford that luxury. The sitcom slaves wisecrack, talk in folksy metaphors, simile-ize their plight. It's very comforting, entertaining, and safe. The mostly white, upper-middle class audience sits enthralled at getting a peek into the life of their darkest curiosities and being assured: it wasn't that bad and it's long in the past. 

The hit series "Orange Is the New Black" is apart of slavery chic. Granted it's about the female prison industrial complex, but most of the characters fit the plantation mode. What makes OITNB innovative is that they have thrown a white observer into the mix to serve as the anchor for the audience to observe the wild comings and goings of shackled and caged women of color. For Halloween, dressing up as Crazy Eyes was very popular last year. 

The trend is only getting stronger with mammy roles, movies about black servants, and servile people of color. For me it's clear what I must do: get on this gravy train...or rather gravy ship.

It's clear that I need to write my own sassy slave and/or servant piece. As I sat watching "Father Comes Home From the War" the idea came to me: a Cirque du Soleil of slavery. Wise, sassy, folksy slaves with acrobatics and fireworks. And jokes. Perhaps they (slaves and or pre-civil rights era servants) find some time machine portal and are transported into the present before an audience for an evening of circus entertainment, song, festivities. 

Maybe the portal keeps spitting out oppressed people from different periods into the circus who are forced into these wise, sassy, joking roles. 

Perhaps we'll have wise and dancing Native Americans coming out of the Trail of Tears, folksy Muslims who were massacred in Bosnia, sassy gypsies, gays and Jewish families from concentration camps. They'll dispense these Yiddish tidbits of wisdom, borscht belt jokes, sing a folksy song, get enslaved and/or slaughtered, and then another group pops out of the portal and into the circus ring. 

Perhaps halfway through the show after the raunchy black slaves and athletically ripped Native Americans and singing Rwandans, people will start to think....'hey, something is weird here. The Holocaust is a serious thing and not to be taken lightly. I don't see anything funny about the Puritans who were slaughtered." 

Maybe the time machine will just keep spitting out more jokes, more genocide, more circus. I could title the piece Cirque du Blanc. And perhaps we can all sit back and finally see genocide/enslavement/ debasement on even comedic grounds. And perhaps that will be when we all stop laughing.

1 comment:

Mildred said...

I've posted about this with respect to to television and the black man servants on The Blacklist and Dracula (cancelled).

Very troubling.