Enacting difference: Marita Bonner's 'Purple Flower' and the ambiguities of race.
This excerpt from the stage directions for Marita Bonner's experimental drama The Purple Flower provides some clues as to why the play, which won the 1927 Crisis prize for "Literary Art and Expression," was never produced. Bonner's description of characters, as ambiguous and intriguing as her set description, indicates two sets of players: Sundry White Devils, whose "horns glow red all the time," and Us's, who may be "white as the White Devils" or "brown as the earth" but should "look as if they were something or nothing" (Bonner 191). The challenge of realizing such directions on stage is certainly one reason that The Purple Flower - unlike Georgia Douglas Johnson's Plumes, which won the Opportunity prize for drama in the same year - remained unperformed during Bonner's lifetime. Perhaps the more important reason is the play's revolutionary message, particularly the final warning the "Us's" issue to the "White Devils": "You have taken blood. You must give blood. . . . there can be no other way" (198-99). Because The Purple Flower's form and message are more in keeping with the revolutionary black theater of the 1960s and '70s than with the "folk" or "propaganda" plays typical of the Harlem Renaissance, the play has only recently been acknowledged as a singular contribution to African American theater.(1)
Since its 1974 reprinting in James V. Hatch and Ted Shine's Black Theater U.S.A. and its subsequent inclusion in Kathy A. Perkins's Black Female Playwrights (1989), The Purple Flower has been described variously as allegorical, surrealistic, expressionistic, or simply abstract, but critics have concurred that the play was most likely meant to be read rather than performed.(2) Yet our experience directing a staged reading of The Purple Flower in the context of an undergraduate literature course suggests that Bonner's play is best understood by considering the problems it poses for would-be performers, for the interpretive questions raised by the play text become, in rehearsal and performance, an opportunity to reflect critically on how racial difference is constructed and maintained. What is most striking and most challenging about Bonner's play from a performance perspective is not its prediction of racial revolution, but its paradoxical suggestion that race is both an illusion and a primary determinant of social identities in the United States.
Confronting this paradox in performance raises practical questions (such as how to cast the play) as well as philosophical and political questions - about racial identity, social conflict, and the relative primacy of race and class oppression - that are not immediately apparent in the text of the play. These issues are often difficult to discuss candidly in predominantly white classroom settings, where white students and students of color can be equally reluctant to pursue such "charged" topics. Yet our African American and white students' collaboration in preparing to perform The Purple Flower demonstrates the play's ability to bring to consciousness, and bring into dialogue, competing assumptions about race. By reporting our students' process of enacting the play - a process that highlighted the provocative ambiguities of Bonner's text - we hope to attract wider attention to The Purple Flower, whose unusual form and indeterminate message give it historical significance as well as current potential to foster interracial discussions in the classroom or theater.
In what follows we consider how Bonner's play differs from those of her contemporaries, looking in particular at moments of the play that undercut essentialized and dualistic concepts of race; discuss our students' attempts to negotiate the play's meaning through performance; and reflect on the implications of studying and performing black plays in predominantly white settings.
Clearly, The Purple Flower conforms to neither of the two dominant philosophies guiding African American theater in the 1920s. While the revolutionary message of The Purple Flower is in keeping with the goals of propaganda plays endorsed by W. E. B. Du Bois, its emphatic non-realism violates Du Bois's dictum that "plays of a real Negro theater" must "reveal Negro life as it is" (296). The Purple Flower's surrealism distinguishes it as well from the "folk" (or "inner-life") plays promoted by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory at Howard University. For while Locke and Gregory disagreed with Du Bois's famous injunction that "all Art is propaganda and ever must be," they shared his approval of formal realism, arguing that "the only avenue of genuine achievement in American drama for the Negro lies in the development of the rich veins of folk-tradition of the past and in the portrayal of the authentic life of the Negro masses of today" (Gregory 159-60).
In spite of their disagreements about the specific function of black drama, all three likely concurred with James Weldon Johnson's statement of the larger problem facing black writers of the period. In "The Dilemma of the Negro Author" (1928) Johnson argued that
. . . the Aframerican author faces a special problem which the plain American author knows nothing about - the problem of the double audience. It is more than a double audience; it is a divided audience, an audience made up of two elements with differing and often opposite points of view. His audience is always both white America and black America . . . . The Negro author can try the experiment of putting black America in the orchestra chairs, so to speak, and keeping white America in the gallery, but he is likely at any moment to find his audience shifting places on him, and sometimes without notice. (477, 481)
Johnson's use of a theatrical metaphor indicates the particular applicability of his argument to the black dramatist. His somewhat contradictory recommendation that a black writer negotiate the dilemma of a dual audience by "standing on his racial foundation" yet rising "above race, and reach[ing] out to the universal" (481) may shed light on the seeming inconsistencies of The Purple Flower, which draws on black folk types, rendered allegorically as "Average" and "Cornerstone," while attempting to illumine "universal" struggles for power, represented by a purple flower, described (without obvious racial referents) as the Flower-of-Life-at-its-Fullest. Bonner's apparent attempts to generalize her themes - evident in her indication of the time as "The Middle-of-Things-as-They-are" (Which means the End-of-Things for some of the characters and the Beginning-of-Things for others) and the place as "here, there or anywhere - or even nowhere" (191) - militate against a solely racial reading.
Indeed, unlike the majority of plays by her black female contemporaries - which have in common a naturalistic, domestic setting; an interest in psychological realism (as opposed to the stereotypes of the minstrel tradition); and implicit or explicit identification of the race of each character - The Purple Flower offers a deliberately non-realistic setting; undeveloped character types; and, most significant for our staged reading, a multiplicity of racial markers (from "well-browned" to "bronzy brown" to "browned peach"), indicating gradations of skin tone between "black" and "white."(3)
These divergences from the practice of her contemporaries are all in service of Bonner's more overtly political theater, most obvious in her presentation of an extended "Argument," which reads as follows:
The White Devils live on the side o the hill. Somewhere. On top of the hill grows the purple Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest. This flower is as tall as a pine and stands alone on top of the hill. The Us's live in the valley that lies between Nowhere and Somewhere and spend their time trying to devise means of getting up the hill. The White Devils live all over the sides of the hill and try every trick, known and unknown, to keep the Us's from getting to the hill. For if the Us's get up the hill, the Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest will shed some of its perfume and then there they will be Somewhere with the White Devils. (192)
This argument clearly outlines the play's themes of power, exclusion, and conflict, and the action follows this outline, with various Us's recalling failed efforts to "get up the hill" and resolving to try a new, more violent tactic involving the sacrifice of a White Devil.
Yet while the plot is straightforward, the identity of the Us's remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the Us's seem to share an historically specific experience of slavery: When one of the Us's recalls "two hundred years of slavery" (193), he presumably refers to the enslavement of African Americans. On the other hand, the play identifies four possible routes to the Purple Flower - Work, Books, God, and Money - that seem to apply more generally to the quest for the American Dream. Likewise, while the climax of the play calls for a young Us named Finest Blood to extract blood from a White Devil - apparently a call to violence - the initial stage directions make it difficult to read the predicted violence as a clash solely between blacks and whites. The human "mounds" that Bonner places on the lower stage as examples of those who have failed to gain a place on the hill are made up, after all, of white, yellow, brown, and black figures.
Certainly all of these colors could refer to the various pigmentations of skin defined as black within the racial order of the United States, but it seems more likely, given Bonner's ironic references to the "Thin-Skin-of-Civilization," that she intended to point out the arbitrariness of race itself, for example, the irrational association of skin color with civilization or the lack thereof.(4) Given the play's self-conscious highlighting of variations of skin color as well as its suggestion that characters of all colors can fall through the "Skin-of-Civilization" (192), The Purple Flower could be interpreted as an allegory about the confrontation between the Haves and Have Nots, a conflict bolstered (but not completely determined) by race. The play is sufficiently ambiguous, that is, to allow a race- and/or class-based interpretation.
Interpreting the Play: Performance as Pedagogy
Our staged reading occurred within the context of an upper-division literature course on women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Taught by Professor Berg, who is white, the course enrolled fifteen students: five who identified themselves as African American and ten who identified as white; twelve women and three men; twelve English majors as well as a biology major, an anthropology major, and a continuing education student.(5) Though the course devoted equal time to poetry, fiction, and drama, students were particularly taken by the one-act plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Mary Burrill, Shirley Graham, and Marita Bonner. Wanting to share with the campus community their enthusiasm for these plays, as well as their strong conviction that black women writers from this period deserved wider recognition, students decided to host a "celebration" of black women's creativity in the 1920s. Students planned to incorporate poetry and music into the event, but wanted its centerpiece to be a reading of The Purple Flower, which they felt was the most radical - and the most relevant - of the plays on the syllabus. Because neither the students nor their literature professor had extensive theatrical experience, Professor Taylor, a white professor of theater and dance, agreed to join the class as a consultant during the several sessions devoted to planning the celebration. It is important to note, however, that the rehearsal process was largely student-driven, with the instructors serving more as facilitators than directors.
Coming to terms with The Purple Flower's ambiguities through casting and staging decisions engaged students in what Michael Vanden Heuvel has recently described as the theatrical "enactment or production of knowledge" (164). Arguing that dramatic literature might serve to interrogate "the mythologized assumptions of reading that are traditionally taught in literature courses," Vanden Heuvel notes that, although drama is "written within an aesthetic and semiotic framework that includes theatricality or spectacle," these are the aspects most often suppressed when drama is taught as literature (161-62). Our own collaboration as professors of literature and of theater/dance, as well as the necessary collaboration of our students in interpreting and enacting the play, allowed us to consider the play both as text and as theater, making possible a self-conscious performance of textual meaning which, as Vanden Heuvel argues, can "transform knowledge in the act of producing it" (165).
While all dramatic literature might be said to produce knowledge in the act of performance, Bonner's play is unique among dramas of the Harlem Renaissance in the extent to which it demands a reader's (and performer's) active collaboration in meaning making. Not surprisingly, during our initial discussions of the play in class, our students varied widely in their interpretations. Yet students' understanding of the play did not polarize along race lines; rather, approximately equal proportions of black and white students initially felt that the play was solely about race or only partly about race. Students who espoused the latter view felt that America's history of racial discrimination left a legacy of economic disparities, but that race no longer determined an individual's power and privilege. They cited Michael Jackson as an example of a "raceless" success story. Other students argued that Jackson's ever-lightening skin, which they interpreted as evidence of internalized racism, demonstrated how important race still was; they cited Rodney King's experience as further evidence of the persistence of deeply rooted racial stereotypes. These students concluded that, given the persistence of racism, a "race war" was a conceivable, even inevitable, eventuality.
While this conversation began a useful dialogue about the ambiguous relationship between racial membership and social privilege, as well as between self- and social definitions of racial identity, it should be obvious from the examples cited above that initial discussions of these issues did not venture far from familiar mass-media images. Certainly, the dynamics of racial privilege and oppression were greatly simplified by students' reliance on mass-media images of racial "success" and "discrimination," which allowed students to talk about race in a sort of shorthand and created an illusion of consensus. Because they could easily assume shared outrage at Rodney King's beating, for example, students could avoid revealing the particularities or the complexities of their own experiences of race. It is also worth noting that the examples students chose to illustrate their ideas about race were, without exception, black; at this point, neither black nor white students indicated an awareness of whiteness as a racial identity.
But as our discussions of the play as text turned to a consideration of how we would realize the play in performance, and students struggled to find ways of concretizing Bonner's abstractions, they had to make explicit the reasons that they interpreted moments of the play as they did, and this sometimes involved sharing anecdotes and analogies from experiences closer to home. As instructors we were committed to a collaborative process that would encourage negotiated meanings, but more often than not it was impossible to reach consensus. Because student discussions of the relationships among race, entitlement, and power revealed such different experiences and assumptions, they were reluctant to present the play in either of the two ways its critics have interpreted it: as a "morality play" whose characters "resonate as Everyman and Everywoman" (Flynn 224) or as a revolutionary drama advocating "racial confrontation" (Harris 217). The question then became how they could maintain the play's ambiguity in performance, making both racially specific and racially non-specific interpretations available to their audience.
Though time and budget constraints ruled out the possibility of doing a fully mounted production of the play, we wanted our performance to include at least some elements of characterization, staged action, and spectacle. To this end, we asked students to agree on practical decisions related to three major questions: (1) How should we cast the play? (2) What are the crucial elements of the setting and how should we indicate them for the audience? And (3) to what extent should we physicalize the characters?
Casting. In considering the first question, students had to decide whether the collectivity implied by Bonner's use of the term Us's was a specifically racial identification or could describe any group of people united through oppression and struggle. Practically speaking, should only African American students play Us's and only white students play White Devils? We asked students to consider the larger implications of casting in terms of current debates among theater practitioners and theorists, prefacing our class discussion of this issue with a brief presentation on current casting practices as well as philosophical debates regarding traditional and non-traditional casting. We introduced the concepts of "color-blind" casting and race-specific casting in order to engage the question of if, and how, race mattered in the theater. Though our own options were governed to a large extent by the demographics of our group (there were not enough African American students to cover all the "Us" roles, for example), we felt that it was important for students to consider the implications of casting decisions.
We wanted, especially, to contextualize the issue in terms of the historically exploitative tradition of black representation in the theater and in terms of the current debate between exponents of the "race-doesn't-and-shouldn't-matter" and the "race (and gender)always-matter" schools of thought. Though this presentation was brief and necessarily generalized, students were introduced to the idea that, in the theater, responsibility for artistic decisions is conjoined with responsibility for the political implications of such decisions. The complexities of the contemporary debate about casting, combined with the inherent ambiguities in the script and students' varying interpretations of it, made this the most protracted and murky, yet possibly most fruitful, discussion. Our casting decisions were complicated by the very different forms of participation called for in the parts of the White Devils and the Us's, the White Devils having no lines (and thus depending on movement) and the Us's having reading duties that would limit movement.
Ultimately, rather than "solving" these interrelated problems, students complicated the binary opposition implied by Bonner's two groups of characters by deciding to render as characters the mounds of people described in Bonner's stage directions, people of unspecified race who, through "too vociferous" and "too violent" action, have fallen through the "Skin-of-Civilization" (192). Students decided to refer to these characters as "Strivers" and to use them to embody the spoken lines of the Us's, thus enacting Bonner's direction that "the action that takes place on the upper stage is duplicated on the lower" (191-92). The Strivers' improvisatory movement motif eventually became a focal point of our staged reading and represented a collaboration not only among students, but also between actors and playwright.
In spite of our lengthy discussions of casting - and perhaps because the dilemma appeared unresolvable - students chose their own roles, seemingly guided more by their inclination to read, move, or dance than by ideological considerations. We did point out to students that their decision to leave the casting up to "individual" choice in fact represented a collective decision about the play's meaning, since the presence of black "White Devils" and white "Us's" on stage would literally and figuratively affect what the audience saw in the play, making a racially specific interpretation less likely. While some students and both instructors felt some trepidation about this choice, which we feared might over-universalize Bonner's message, and thus water down the play's revolutionary import, the decision did have some advantages. Students who took on a part that allowed them to enact a social positioning other than their own seemed to gain more insights into the play's complexities than those who did not.
Setting. With the issue of casting negotiated, we moved to concrete questions of setting and staging. We decided to represent the hill, realm of the White Devils, by using the balcony of our black box theater, and to place the Us's on the stage floor. Positioned above the heads of the Us's, the White Devils would be engaged exclusively in taunting the Us's by waving bits of purple paper (symbolic of their "piece of the flower") and dancing to an offstage recording of En Vogue's 1992 hit "Never Gonna Get It," whose title and lyrics offered a fitting update of the taunting chant indicated in the play text. We employed a scaffold between the two levels to represent the thin "Skin-of-Civilization" and to serve as a ladder of sorts for the "Strivers" alternately to struggle up and fall from. Other aspects of the setting would be conveyed through the use of a narrator who would read Bonner's extensive stage directions.
We devoted a good deal of discussion to how (or if) to represent the purple flower as part of the setting. Like our debate about casting, our discussion about how to concretize the play's central symbol made more visible our different assumptions about the play's meaning. Agreeing that the quest of the Us's for the Purple Flower could be seen as a rough analogue to the pursuit of the American Dream, students disagreed about the validity of this pursuit, depending upon their understanding of what the Dream, and thus the Flower, represented. When they described their visualizations of the Purple Flower, students fell into two camps: those who saw the flower as a metaphor for material goods and the status associated with access to worldly riches, and those who argued that it represented spiritual or communal ideals and harmony.
Suggestions for visual symbols for the flower, then, ranged from a glittering mirror ball (representing materialism) to an empty spotlight (representing the empty hope of attaining freedom while anyone remained oppressed) to a mixed-race baby (representing a utopian future in which race "wouldn't matter" and all would live in harmony). Our attempts to concretize the Purple Flower again highlighted the ambiguity of Bonner's message, with suggestions wavering between racially specific and "universal" interpretations. Consensus was (again) not reached; the issue was resolved only through individual student initiative when one student created a large, and fairly literal, purple flower out of craft materials and brought it into the final rehearsal. Suspended over the heads of the actors, it glittered in its own spotlight (our sole use of theatrical lighting).
Staging. Throughout our preparations, classroom debates about the play's meaning were interspersed with movement exercises designed to help students feel, as well as intellectualize, some of the play's conflicts. One such exercise asked a randomly selected majority of students to link hands and form a circle excluding the minority. The minority then had to attempt to sneak or force themselves into the circle. Before switching roles, each group had the opportunity to voice insights about what the exercise evoked; the students who "made it" into the circle expressed guilt for leaving others outside the circle as well as the sense that their new position "on the inside" was uncomfortably constricting. These deceptively simple exercises allowed us to discuss feelings of solidarity, exclusion, isolation, and anxiety that accompanied different students' identification with a dominant or subordinate group. In particular, they made more obvious some differences in perception between most of the white students, who had not thought of themselves as members of a racial group, and most of the black students, who had.
Informed by such exercises and discussions, students divided into three groups to devise physical actions as well as costuming for the staged reading. The White Devils used excessive amounts of make-up to indicate the superficiality and self-aggrandizement of those closest to the flower; the Us's chose to wear matching costumes of blue jeans and black t-shirts to represent the collective identity of the Us's, in spite of their varying skin tones; the three white women who elected to take on the role of "Strivers" developed an expressionistic movement theme - involving pushing, pulling, and falling - to physicalize specific lines read by the Us's. Using each other's bodies alternately as bridges and barriers to ascending the scaffolding, these students attempted to represent both the collectivity of human struggle and the lack of solidarity that leads to literal downfall. Not surprisingly, the Strivers, who were physically the most engaged, reported having the most powerful experience in performance.
In general, student essays reflecting on their experience confirmed Margaret Wilkerson's suggestion that "the theater offers a unique opportunity to step into the space of other individuals and other experiences - with safety" (323). Wilkerson observes that critics "outside or on the perimeters of [black] cultural experience" often "discuss black theater as if it were unrelated to their own lives" (322). The same could be said of white students (and faculty), who often view race as attaching to others but not to themselves. For white students, participating in an interracial production that demands self-reflection may do more to interrupt this tendency than viewing African American drama "from the outside." The Purple Flower's accessibility to white performers - who can play either White Devils or light-skinned Us's - makes it particularly useful in predominantly white institutions, where white directors sometimes hesitate to direct African American plays focused unambiguously on "the black experience," and black and white students can thus be limited to a white repertoire.
For many white students, the experience of enacting a racial identity on stage made it difficult to view either "blackness" or "whiteness" from a remove.(6) One of the most interesting realizations came from a white student whose role as a White Devil gave her insight into what is often unacknowledged in discussions of race: that whiteness depends on blackness, and that white privilege is actively upheld by maintaining race as an insurmountable difference. She noted that, although the White Devils were in a "coveted position in the scheme of things," there was "nothing for [us White Devils] to do that wasn't in direct relationship with the Us's. In other words, I was only employed in showing the Us's what they were not, and what they could not be. Although I felt slightly exalted as a 'white devil' I also felt kept out of things and apart from the main action of the stage." Another white student indicated that playing the part of a White Devil changed her perceptions of Us's and White Devils, causing her to admire the solidarity of the Us's and question the rapaciousness of the White Devils:
It was not until the performance that I noticed the unity among the Us's. . . . I felt that the White Devils had no emotional connection [except through] possessing the purple flower. I felt that the Us's wouldn't have fought or killed each other for the purple flower but that the White Devils would have. I was really surprised how much more I thought about during the actual performance as compared to rehearsing it.
Students who performed a racial identity other than their own had even stronger responses. An African American student who chose to play the role of a White Devil found her understanding of both Us's and White Devils altered by the experience of performance: "When I saw [the play] performed, I didn't find the Us's as pitiful as I did when I read the play. They seemed to have more courage. . . . As for the White Devil part - I liked running around and having freedom, while the Us's just stood there basically and read or withered to the ground. It did make me feel kind of superior being up there dancing and teasing." This student calls attention to how her own literal positioning above the action on stage - much like the social positioning of whites over blacks - contributed to a seductive feeling of superiority. Her comments reflect her increased awareness of whiteness as a socially constructed identity.
Both black and white students' responses suggested that our discussions of racial casting, and our ultimate decision to cast across race, made possible what Deborah Thompson has described as not merely "color conscious" but "color consciousness-raising" casting (139). Thompson argues that the legacy of whites performing black roles - negatively associated with blackface - can potentially be "transformed into a mode of understanding, of trying on other identities, so that body-identities, particularly racial identities, become both fictions and truths, both transgressable and respected" (139). While this sort of "trying on" can be a powerful catalyst to rethink assumptions about race, the response of the white, female student who chose to play the role of Finest Blood (the member of the Us's chosen to attack a White Devil) makes clear not only the possibilities but also the limitations of using cross-racial casting as a consciousness-raising technique. This student reports drawing on her own understanding of oppression in order to render her role believable:
I realize that this may sound very corny, but I really tried to make myself into Finest Blood. I tried to understand what it would feel like to want that which other people are withholding from you - thus, I drew on my own experiences as a woman in a patriarchal society in an attempt to allow my frustration and anger to enter into my voice as I spoke my lines. It sounds weird, but I really wanted to make it believable. . . . I did not want to just read - I wanted to be.
Her response demonstrates the power of performance to elicit identification and empathy; her desire to "be" Finest Blood, whom she viewed as black, was certainly a sincere attempt to take on a different "body-identity." At the same time, her comments underscore the temptation to equate different forms of oppression, thereby glossing over the historical specificity of racial and gender oppression. Certainly we did not intend to give our students the impression that enacting a role - in improvisational exercises or a staged reading - could convey the "real" experience of a social position they did not inhabit, for instance, that white students could "be" black in performance. With hindsight, we would take more time exploring with our students the fine line between what Thompson defines as constructive transgression and what could easily become appropriation.
While students generally evaluated their experience favorably, we do not mean to imply that our pedagogical process was either seamless or an unqualified success. As white feminist faculty collaborating as teachers and co-directors of the play, we faced many of the same issues our students did. Not only did the two of us debate the play's meaning - as well as our implication in the race and class conflicts it depicts - but we also struggled with our role as facilitators of the interpretive process. Ellen Donkin suggests the potential pitfalls of white directors working with black play texts, arguing that
the model of director as "interpreter" of the text is full of the kinds of bogus neutralities and veiled authority that feminists have been exposing in literature and literary criticism for the past twenty years. In the instance of a white director working on an African American play text the real functions of the position of director become even more blatantly exposed as a form of colonialism. (81)
Donkin argues, however, that collaboration can decentralize the interpretive process, providing one way for white directors to "enter the text of an African American play in a position of inquiry (as distinct from the missionary position)" (82). As teachers, rather than directors, we were less interested in offering a particular interpretation of Bonner's play than in providing conditions for cross-racial dialogue and learning. Nonetheless, the sort of decentralization Donkin calls for in the theater is equally crucial in predominantly white classroom settings where the authority invested in a white teacher might silence minority voices.
Our experience discussing race in such settings tells us that, while the literature classroom or theater never escapes larger social constructions of race, collaboration on many levels - in this case, among and between faculty, students, and a challenging playwright - can make different understandings of race more visible, if not resolvable. Our student performers' attempts to embody the roles of White Devils, Us's, or Strivers engaged them in a process of inquiry requiring empathic identifications with their respective characters as well as critical reflections about race.
While we and our students strived to be self-critical about our assumptions, our interpretive decisions might well be contested outside of the predominantly white setting in which our staged reading was performed. Yet what makes The Purple Flower particularly useful as a teaching tool and particularly powerful in performance is Bonner's deliberate solicitation of debate, nowhere more evident than in her decision to end the play with a question. The final stage directions (read aloud by the narrator of our staged reading) indicate that Finest Blood's demand for blood echo into a sudden silence, in which:
(All the US listen. All the valley listens. Nowhere listens. All the WHITE DEVILS listen. Somewhere listens. Let the curtain close leaving all the US, the WHITE DEVILS, Nowhere, Somewhere, listening, listening. Is it time?) (199)
Although we did not end our performance by asking our audience to respond to this question, soliciting this form of audience participation as a final form of collaboration would have continued, and further complicated, the dialogue we undertook as a classroom community. Future fully mounted productions of the play would certainly be enhanced by incorporating this form of participatory theater, which would make each production a "work-in-progress" rather than a finished product.(7) Encouraging such dialogue is especially crucial in the current racial climate, when conflict and mistrust appear to be increasing and public forums for interracial conversations are all too rare. To the extent that African Americans and whites still form what James Weldon Johnson called a "divided audience," performing or viewing innovative cross-racial plays like The Purple Flower may spur the sort of attentive listening that Bonner urges and theater ideally fosters.
1. For a discussion of the two strands of African American drama emerging from the Little Negro Theater Movement of the early 1920s, see Perkins, "Introduction" 3-7. Varying interpretations of the text of The Purple Flower can be found in Abramson, Hill, Flynn, McKay, and Perkins, "Introduction," but none of these critics considers the play from the perspective of performance.
2. Flynn notes that, although Bonner was a member of the Krigwa Players in Washington, D.C., her plays were never' performed, perhaps indicating that she did not intend her plays for performance ("Introduction" xviii). Perkins states that Bonner "would write on her plays 'a play to be read' as opposed to being performed" ("Introduction" 16), but it is important to note that this indication was included on only one of her three extant plays, the 1927 drama The Pot Maker. Since Bonner typically wrote essays and short stories, her choice of a dramatic format for The Purple Flower, as well as her detailed (if elusive) stage directions, suggests that, whether or not she desired the play to be performed, she intended her readers to visualize the text as theater.
3. For more typical examples of black women's "folk" and "propaganda" plays of this era, see Georgia Douglas Johnson's Plumes (1927) and Angelina Weld Grimke's Rachel (1916).
4. Bonner's short stories and essays frequently comment on the arbitrariness of racial designations and on the resulting inter- and intra-racial prejudices and conflicts. Her 1938 story "Black Fronts" employs the phrase skin of civilization to describe the pretensions of a middle-class black character who has "no back - no middle - all front" (149). See also her 1927 short story "Drab Rambles," whose opening monologue offers a particularly complicated meditation on race, color, and difference: "You are white, you say. And I am black, You are white and I am black and so we are different, you say. If I am whiter than you, you say I am black. You do not know me. I am all men tinged in brown. I am all men with a touch of black. I am you and I am myself. . . . I am all men tinged and touched with black. . . . Close all men in a small space, tinge and touch the Space with one blood - you get a check-mated Hell. . . . You do not care - you say. But still, I am you - and all men" (92).
5. Many of the issues discussed in this article, particularly the issue of casting, would have been more complicated (but perhaps more revealing of Bonner's complex view of race) had there been students in the class who identified as other than "black" or "white."
6. In the end, students did see themselves as enacting racial, rather than other social identities, on stage. In spite of our discussions of the play's ambiguities regarding race, and students' decision not to cast White Devils and Us's as racially specific roles, their responses after the staged reading revealed that they saw the White Devils as white and the Us's as black. This may indicate the primacy of race in students' conceptions of oppression, for while many students argued in discussion that the Us's could represent any marginalized group (for instance, women, or gays and lesbians), they focused on race in their written comments about insights gained in performance.
7. We borrow this language from Deborah Thompson's discussion of Robbie McCauley's Sally's Rape (1994), a play that explores the connections and disjunctions between African American and white women's experience of rape, and uses audience participation during and after the performance to deny viewers comfortable distance from the tensions depicted.
Abramson, Doris E. "Angelina Weld Grimke, Mary T. Burrill, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Marita O. Bonner: An Analysis of Their Plays." Sage 2.1 (1985): 9-12.
Blau, Herbert. "Ideology and Performance." Theater Journal 35 (1983): 441-60.
Bonner, Marita. "Black Fronts." Flynn and Stricklin 149-57.
-----. "Drab Rambles." Flynn and Stricklin 92-101.
-----. The Purple Flower. Perkins, Black 191-99.
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-----. "Introduction." Perkins, Black 1-17.
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Allison Berg is Assistant Professor of Writing and American Culture at James Madison College, Michigan State University. She taught previously at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where the collaboration described here took place. She is currently completing a book about race and motherhood in early twentieth-century American literature.
Merideth Taylor is Associate Professor in the Department of Dramatic Arts at St. Mary's College of Maryland. A director, choreographer, teacher, and performer, she recently wrote and directed an adaptation of Lucille Clifton's children's story, The Lucky Stone.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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