By Emily Oliver
Theatre has always constituted a space within which social boundaries can be transcended. On stage, a marginalized voice can be lifted up and celebrated. Untold stories and silenced perspectives can be heard. Nevertheless, the systemic discrimination faced by people of colour does not end when they enter the theatre doors. Both classic and contemporary pieces of theatre alike are united in their depiction of the often painful, often painless, often unifying, often divisive, often empowering position of a marginalized person existing within a society that insists upon their marginalization. There is a certain freedom to exist in the margins.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, written in 1982 by August Wilson, is a play centring around racism, the depiction of racial struggle through art, discrimination, and the systemic and continual exploitation of marginalized communities by white people. Set in Chicago in 1927, the play follows Ma Rainey, a jazz singer who just signed on with white producers and her band on their first day of recording. The ambitious trumpeter, Levee, dreams of change, his trumpet signifying him as a herald for better times. Despite this, the tragic end of the play roots his narrative firmly in the experience shared by so many black people and other marginalized communities today. Change does not come easily. It is often violent, bloody, and not everyone lives to see the fruits of their labour.
Despite being set nearly one hundred years ago, events of the play still ring frighteningly true, forcing an examination of how far society has truly progressed. The 2020 film adaptation, centering around compelling performances given by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, compounds the relevance of the narrative for a contemporary audience. The commodification of ‘blackness’ is a concept that has newly entered mainstream conversations around race. The Kardashians are often criticised for appropriating the lips, hips, and hairstyles of African American people, despite having a distinctly Caucasian heritage. Their use of plastic surgery, waist trainers and fake tan to take on fetishistic appropriations of African American beauty standards has brought the idea of commodifying ‘blackness’ to the forefront of media discussion of race. Works such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom encroach on the thematic relevance of white exploitation of black culture. The final shot of the film adaptation is one of Levee’s songs being recorded by a band consisting solely of white musicians, thought to be a depiction of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman is heralded by his supporters as the ‘King of Jazz,’ whilst his critics believe his music is jazz in name only, lacking the improvisational qualities and emotional depth, and stealing the innovations of black musicians.
Ma Rainey is criticized by Levee for surrendering her blackness. He accuses her of sacrificing her own identity in order to appeal to a mass white audience, allowing her artistic voice to be commodified for their comfortable consumption. The controversy surrounding Boseman losing out on his Oscar to the (rightly) celebrated, caucasian actor Anthony Hopkins for his performance in ‘The Father’ engages us further in how the themes of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ are still relevant today. One, a black man lost unexpectedly to cancer and never decorated by The Academy for his considerable contributions to film and television. The other, an old white man on holiday in Wales with a previous Best Actor Oscar win. This is not to negate the quality of Hopkin’s performance and the deservedness of the award. It merely forces an examination of the systems of power in place over critical acclaim and those which define cultural weight and significance.
The position of black artists is examined by many more contemporary playwrights. Notably, C.A. Johnson’s coming of age comedy ‘All the Natalie Portmans’ adopts the eyes of sixteen-year-old Keyonna with which to see the world. ‘Too smart,’ ‘too gay,’ and ‘too lonely’ to fit in, Keyonna depicts the struggle of living on the poverty line whilst examining the escapism offered by art. On National Theatre at Home, ‘Three Sisters’ adapted by Inua Ellams after Chekhov is currently available to stream. The iconic narrative is relocated to Nigeria, in 1967, a country on the brink of the Biafran Civil War. The bold and striking adaption is a brilliant assertion of black excellence, and is, in my opinion, far more compelling than the original. The National Theatre Black Plays Archive has an incredible range of resources, the perfect way to diversify one’s theatrical education past Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett.
With recent criticisms of Hamilton arising from casting people of colour as slave owners, we are reminded of the necessity to continually direct a critical eye to all forms of art. It has been criticized as left-wing liberal appeasement, written in order to make liberals feel self-gratified due to the diversifying and subsequent dilution of America’s violent history. The dialogue surrounding depictions of racial conflict in theatre is ongoing. The conversation is not fixed. Like all theatre, it should be inherently inclusive. And yet a necessary prerequisite to enter into the conversation is ensuring that marginalized voices are put at the center, and are not drowned out.
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