This was a most unexpected play. It doesn’t shy away from confronting the audience with searing truths about the history of racism in this country. Douglas Turner Ward, the playwright, was born in Lousiana in 1930, and made his Broadway debut in a small role in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ In 1965, his program of two one-act plays, Happy Ending/Day of Absence, was produced at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in Manhattan; he received a Drama Desk Award. And in 2019, this play still has the power to elicit acknowledgment of the truth about race relations in the United States.
This is exceptionally well-done theatre that demands to be seen and discussed. It is depressing that in 2019 we are still having these conversations, but it is not a depressing play. It is a righteous call to arms for all of us to do what is right and simply human.
The production now playing at the Anacostia Playhouse is still one act, but with three distinct parts, hewing back to the way minstrel shows were produced. Part One is The Music, a medley of the “Black National Anthem.” As one actor stands on stage giving us a brief history of how after Reconstruction blacks were forced back into a type of slavery and how it has affected his life, the cast enters from the back of the theatre, singing the anthem acapella. The procession–measured, unfaltering, with voices challenging the status quo–is regal and chilling.
In Part Two: The Olio (crossword puzzle fanatics will recognize that as a word meaning variety) the cast performs a minstrel show–a modern minstrel show. There is the Say It Loud game show with audience participation, where we got to guess who invented what–a white or a black person. There were two clowns who did a very funny take on the Marx Brothers mirror skit. There were also magic acts and more clowning; one which involved an escalation of violence, beginning with a foam bat and ending with a handgun, was sobering in its implications. Even in the variety revue, there was an undercurrent of tension.
Then came Part Three: The Proper Play. Performed in reverse minstrel show style–whiteface by the African-American cast–the show has a seemingly simple premise. What would happen if, in an unnamed small Southern town, all the black people just disappeared overnight? The town, which thrives on the underpaid and unappreciated labor of the black workers, starts falling apart. Parents are forced to take care of their own children, businesses must figure out how to empty the trash and clean the floors and windows, and the day grows steadily darker as it becomes a state emergency with the threats of the National Guard coming to keep order.
As in traditional minstrel shows where black people were portrayed as “oversexed, lazy, lying” etc., this show takes direct aim at whites. They simply can’t cope and become hysterical, faint, attack each other, start believing the end of days is near. At one point the mayor, played with increasingly hysterical theatrics by Jared Shamberger, begs the black people to return, promising no retaliation and getting the townspeople to hold up the rags, mops, sponges, babies that they toil with; in his mind, this is an inducement to come back and put things back in their proper order. It’s a horrifying revelation of how insular and short-sighted and ignorant the white population is.
Then the black population (some of the old and sick were found in the black wing of the hospital “refusing to get well”) start returning. Two white shopkeepers who are on their knees cringing in fear at the implications of their world being turned upside down are shaking with relief. But things may never return to normal as the black workers silently file back up on the stage, pick up their tools, then as one, drop them. It’s a moment of promise–whether threat or hope is left ambiguous.
The cast is phenomenal. Damondre Green, Dylan Fleming, Jared Shamberger, Kaisheem Fowler Bryant, Charles Franklin IV, Kayla Warren, Ezinne Elele, Jonathan Del Palmer, Sisi Rid and Nia Savoy all play multiple parts, easily shifting from one character to another.
The co-directors, Raymond O. Caldwell and Angelisa Gillyard don’t pull punches or soften the work. It is a call to action–for black people to not accept less than full participation in our society, and for white people to understand that their place at the table is already there, so deal with it. It is an indictment of the racism that still undergirds our society’s structures. It is a slam against the overt resurgence of racism that is happening right now. And it is a promise that there will be change, no matter what.
Iyona Blake as music director brings drama and harmony to the singing and music selections; she helps set the tone for the inexorable forward march demanded.
This is an exceptionally well-done theatre that demands to be seen and discussed. It is depressing that in 2019 we are still having these conversations, but it is not a depressing play. It is a righteous call to arms for all of us to do what is right and simply human.
So get over to the Anacostia Playhouse and see it, experience it, feel it. We all owe it to ourselves if we want to survive as a society.
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
“Day of Absence” runs through November 3, 2019, by Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse, Washington, DC.