Literary Connections: A Theatrical Review of George Boyd's Wade in the Water.
In the summer of 2001, playwright George Boyd had only recently relocated to Montreal from Halifax. At about the same time I was myself embarking as the new Artistic Director of Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop. I was pleased to hear that the author of Consecrated Ground, a play I much admire, was not only now living in Montreal but that he wanted to come see me with a new manuscript in hand. That manuscript was an early draft of a short story entitled "Ice Nelson Johns." George Boyd wanted to know if I thought it might be worth adapting to the stage as a play for one actor. Two years and one additional actor later--in October 2003--Black Theatre Workshop (BTW) staged the premiere production of George Boyd's most recent play Wade in the Water.
George Boyd's Wade in the Water represents both a departure from, and an ongoing treatment of, themes explored in his earlier play Consecrated Ground. Both plays insist upon the importance of historical subject matter as contemporary testimony, and both stress the importance of family and community in efforts to challenge economic and political repression and marginalization. However, where Consecrated Ground implicitly questions the efficacy of individual agency when such initiative is not accompanied by community and family support, Wade in the Water instead maps the consciousness-raising journey of the play's fictional ex-slave protagonist Nelson Williams Johns, from his early days of relative privilege and political naivet6, to his so-called (and initially undesired) "liberation" in the post-Civil War south, on to a quest to reunite with his son in Nova Scotia, and ultimately to an outright rejection of North American racism through settlement in the free colony of Sierra Leone. While both plays end with death, the 70 year-old Nelson's murder by slavers in Wade in the Water evokes a sense of individual redemption and rebirth, and consequently of a certain inner triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity. Conversely, the highly symbolic burial of the baby Tully in Consecrated Ground's dramatization of the Africville debacle emphasizes the tragedy of the demolition of a whole community: as such the play demands in a loud, angry voice that witnesses (audience) pay attention to an important cautionary tale about the dangers of paternalism masquerading as misguided liberalism (Clarke, "Making" 393.) The more introspective tone of Wade in the Water transforms the realism of its predecessor Consecrated Ground, both in style and in structure, in favour of techniques of first-person direct audience address (in line with performance traditions based in orality and storytelling), and of a dream-like quality of non-linearity in a nonetheless mostly chronologically plotted play (in keeping with the play's device of events as relived in the memory of the protagonist.)
In his introduction to Consecrated Ground, George Elliott Clarke elucidates both the meaning and the meaninglessness of the "empty triumph" of the baby's burial:
In the last scene of the play, II.x, the Lyle family is reconstituted--perhaps ephemerally--in the instance of Clarice's triumphant consecration of her son's casket with Africville soil. Still, this "triumph" is empty, given that both the scion of the Lyle household and of Clarice's inheritance is lost. Thus, the once-Promised Land of Africville becomes a graveyard and a ghost town. ("Making" 395)
Earlier in this same introduction, Clarke posits that:
In Consecrated Ground, the struggle over the fate of Africville and its citizens is viewed as a political-philosophical contest between conservatism--i.e. the conservation of the "race" (to refer to an 1897 essay by the great African-American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois)--and liberalism, or the reduction of community to an assembly of individual "consumers". When Willem Lyle signs over his wife's property to the City of Halifax, and does so on the coffin of his son, Tully (slain by rats drawn to the neighbourhood by the garbage dump that the city deliberately placed nearby), he concedes, dramatically, that a conservative regard for heritage must give way to the liberal ideal of individual, socio-economic advancement. If the life of his son means little to the City of Halifax, the life of Africville means little to Willem. (393)
On one level the story of Nelson William Johns in Wade in the Water is an inversion of Willem's story in Consecrated Ground, while still supporting the playwright's seeming indictment of "the liberal ideal of individual advancement" as put forward by George Elliott Clarke. Willem reveals only passing personal insight into the fallacy of his search for economic advantage (read: assimilation), whereas the underlying premise of Nelson's theatrical journey is that it leads him ultimately to an understanding of how his own privilege, whether wittingly or unwittingly (a question the playwright leaves us to consider), contributed to the economic system that nonetheless enslaved him, his family and his community.
In Consecrated Ground Willem's ambitions are for a "better life" than he perceives Africville can offer:
WILLEM: It like ... it like the whole universe out there, just waitin' for us to ... step out into it.... Like, baby, I been thinkin' ... maybe it's time we got outa Africville ... and ... and, well, there ain't hardly no one left here anyways. Everybody's gonna go. I'm thinkin' yeah ... maybe we should take the city's offer and sell. People always movin'
Leasey. White folks move all the time. Mister Clancy say we can relocate to a good, warm place in, ah, Uniacke Square. (2.3.464)
Boyd ends Wade in the Water with a confession of complicity, and Nelson's avowal of his own responsibility:
NELSON: ... Ice member Ice smuggled for Young Massa ta feed da Confederate Army ... Ice been entrapped in da play of da past ... only ta be Iookin' into tomorrrah ...
... Ice lied and Ice betrayed ...
Helpin' Young Massa ta maintain-a institution, our people and Ice ...
... despise ...
Ice got sins ta pay fer, Ella (pause) ... sins ... and what lies before me, sweet Ella, is the result of what went behind ...
... Oh please baby, as Ice die, help me member da bill Ice owes ta Gawd. (sc. 14)
Alternately directing speeches to his departed wife Ella and to the audience, Nelson reveals early in his story that he was raised in a life of relative comfort and leisure, compared to the lot of most slaves in the American pre-Civil War south. No mere "field slave", Nelson was also no mere "house slave", and he seems anxious for the audience to be aware of his conferred status:
NELSON: ... Why Ice must-a been lil' more den a pickaninny, when Ol' Massa snatch me from my Momma and tooked me into da Big House. Ice gotta whole room to mesell and Ice plays in da attic. When Ice older, Ol' Massa always took me wif him on his hoss when he went bout inspectin' Twin Oaks. He take me to town and buy me toys. Ol' Massa gimme da run of da plantation. Ice runs all ober and playin' an' talkin' to de udder coloureds as dey works in da fields. (sc. 2)
Any presumed lack of education arising from Nelson's use of slave dialect would be a false and gross assumption: not only does the Ol' Massa teach his young slave protege to read (an illegal act in the pre-Civil war South), Nelson grows up to accompany the Young Massa, Ol' Massa's son, to attend classes at Harvard. Ostensibly and to outward appearances merely the Young Massa's servant, the or Massa himself tells us that the intention all along was to provide a "Harvard education", as revealed in his angry berating of Nelson: "YOU, SUH, HAVE BEEN GIVEN A HARVARD EDUCATION! YOU SUH, ARE MUCH UNLIKE THESE
PICKANINNIES RUNNIN' ROUND HEAH!! (long pause) Now you speak English--NOT SLAVE PATOIS!" (sc. 8)
Nelson replies to his owner in the King's English, "Suh!! Would Ella still love me if I spoke like this? Would I be accepted in the Slave Quarter? (pause) But Ice prefer ta be in da Slave Quarter with Ella, and Ice speaks dis way cause Ice choose to." Nelson's choice to speak in slave dialect is therefore more than simply protection from the deadly wrath of less "indulgent" whites, but is also--it seems primarily--a political act which insists upon the validity of the language itself, and its fundamental relationship to a culture and a community. Nelson's argument for speaking what Ol' Massa refers to as "slave gibberish" is therefore as much a declaration of the importance of language to family, community and to identification with Black culture, as Willem's betrayal of Clarice in Consecrated Ground is an act of individual severance from community ties, and indicates a desire for community and individual assimilation into the dominant white society. In both plays, playwright George Boyd's implicit condemnation of this colonial, assimilationist mentality reflects a politicized stance affiliated with 20th century activism among Black intellectuals:
It continues to be the painful and trying task of the black consciousness movement to destroy the ambivalence about black language and culture and replace the old pejorative [sic] assumptions with new positive ones. [...] Undoubtedly this has been in recognition of the fact that language is interwoven with culture and psychic being. Thus to deny the legitimacy of Africanized English is to deny the legitimacy of black culture and the black experience. (Geneva Smitherman, qtd in Cook, 390)
George Elliott Clarke is not the least bit ambivalent:
Since Standard English was thrust upon African diasporic peoples against their wills, it is marvellous justice that, in every exilic African culture, from New Brunswick to New Orleans, from Jamaica to California, that tongue now meets a different standard [...] Our English is, no longer, the Master's voice. ("No Language" 276)
Clarke refers to Willem in Consecrated Ground as "an abject example of the 'failed' Black male". ("Making" 394) Wade in the Water charts a male protagonist's difficult and painful path to raised personal and political consciousness. If Consecrated Ground demonstrates " [...] the emasculation of Black males [...] within the inclement context of a white male-dominated society" (395), then arguably Wade in the Water's exploration of the inner conflict of a slave whose biological father is also his owner, is an investigation of what is behind this masculine "failure" (i.e. identification with the white man's patriarchy.) By the end of the play, the protagonist asserts independence from paternalism through an act of heroism: Nelson, as a result of his process of politicization, takes a stand on freedom from slavery for his own grandson. Through hisactions he is both reclaiming his own paternal responsibility and rejecting his prior acceptance of paternalism as social order:
NELSON: Ice knows it be dangerous, Ella, and as soon as Two and Ice wade in the waw-tah--as soon as we set our hooks--dese men, white men on hosses and wif swingin' nets, come racin' outa da forest. Day be slabbers, Ella ... Slabbers. (beat)'WEES BEES FREE!!! (beat) DIS BE FREETOWN!!' Dey don't pay me no minds and keeps coming, flashin' dere whips and nets. Ice looks at our grand-baby Two, 'RUN! TWO RUN!!' (beat) We runs. (beat) ... But hosses be faster den a character, so Ice stops and tracks dere attention to me as Ice yells at Two ta run! As Two run into dat tick forest, he bees da last ting Ice sees of our family. Dey entange me in dere nets an drags me ober da sharp rocks a da shoreline tils Ice bleedin' into da waw-tah. Dey couldn't get Two, so dey gonna drown me ... dey gets no need fer an or man. (sc. 13)
Nelson has converted to a stronger identification with his Black family than with his white oppressors, despite his mixed blood ancestry.
Clarke asserts that Clarice, in Consecrated Ground, "emerges as the heroically obstinate articulator of Black worth and faith", where Willem--in Clarke's estimation an example of the Iterary syndrome of the "failed Black male'--"becomes the spokesperson for--and the symbol of--Black defeat." ("Making" 393)
Following this reasoning, in Wade in the Water the absence of Nelson's wife Ella allows him (or forces him) to take action, and subsequently to take responsibility for his actions. The playwright George Boyd himself states, "If Ella had been alive and said, 'Nelson, we're not going to Africa!'--they wouldn't be going to Africa."
George Boyd explains this phenomenon in his plays byreferring to his own reality of growing up in Nova Scotia:
I'm fifty years old, and the Black community I grew up in was a matriarchal community. That's not to say the men were weak, or emasculated. [But] the white community saw the Black female as less threatening than the Black male. They'd hire a Black woman to come into their homes to do domestic work, no problem. But "uh oh!" if it's a Black male. Earlier in the last century the Black males couldn't get a job [in Nova Scotia]. The Black females got tie jobs. So the female became the head of the household, really [...] That's what I've tried to depict in my plays.
Without Ella to guide him, Nelson both physically and metaphorically leaves the safety of the "known"--his Southern "home"--for the uncharted path to find his son, a journey which eventually returns him, via Nova Scotia, to his African roots: Nelson faces up to the failures of an assimilationist mentality.
Nelson's psychological journey can be considered a search for a father figure, a search that proves to be misdirected: he looks to the wrong people in the wrong places. Upon leaving the South, following the destruction of the only home he has ever known, Nelson encounters, for the second time, a white Union army officer. Nelson and the General reach a tentative, uneasy "friendship", which then progresses to a seeming intimacy as Nelson agrees to be employed by his former enemy and ostensible "liberator". Nelson is infuriated when a much-anticipated visit to the White House belies his alleged emancipation:
NELSON: Ella--Ice be standin' in da White House. As da President and his Missus approach, Ice try to shake his hand but da President walk right by, like Ice bees invisible--like Ice ain't a human bean. Den one of da soldiers hustle me into da White House kitchen ... All a sudden, Ice was hussled off to a puny table in da corner ... Ice eats alone. Ice neber see da General all evening. Ice looks around me. The President's kitchen, Ella, and it be no different than da kitchen at Twin Oaks. Ice winder what this war was all about. Ice wonder if we gots a full membership in this here New-Knighted states cuz nothin' has changed ... It don't matter if'n you bees norse or south ... dey all da same. (pause) So ... Ice juss walks away, Ella. (sc. 11)
For a second time Nelson walks away from the inequities of an ideology of paternalism, which has turned out to be as false in its practice in the North as it was as professed justification for slavery in the South, where slaveowners "felt more interest in enlarging their crops and their profits than in faithfully ministering to their slave 'children'". (Escott, 20)
Whether or not Nelson is aware, in the fiction of the play, that or Massa was his biological progenitor prior to Young Massa's revelation of the fact (the plajwright leaves this question open to interpretation), the relationship in the play is clearly one of fathertosurrogate, if not actual, son. Despite or Massa's seemingly genuine love for Nelson (and indeed his preference for Nelson over the profligate Young Massa) social and family constraints would have prevented the slaveowner from openly acknowledging the biological reality of the relationship. In this, the only scene between the two characters, moments where the or Massa attempts to exert absolute control in his relationship to Nelson as slave, are intermingled with the loving if sometimes reluctant indulgences of father-to-son. The Ol' Massa figure embodies the hypocrisies and contradictions of paternalism as theory and in its practice(s).
Although the play leaves ambiguous, in its denouement, the question of whether Nelson's feelings for the previously beloved Ol' Massa have changed, Nelson is forced to acknowledge in death what he had unconsciously acknowledged in life when he chose Ella and the Slave Quarter over a feather bed in the Big House: that the system of slavery which his "owner" both inherently and actively maintained and vehemently believed in, is precisely what prevents the older man from being a true "father", and Twin Oaks a true "home". Nelson tells Ella just prior to capture by slavers, "Ella, Ice can't tells ya how it feels to be home. Twin Oaks was not me home. Ice was juss a tenant. My home be here in Africka, in Sierra Leone ..." (sc. 12)
By ending Nelson's quest in Sierra Leone, and calling it "home", Wade in the Water lends credence to Clarke's assertion of Boyd's preference, in his drama, for a black nationalist option. Nelson chooses Sierra Leone over North America, and joins his beloved Ella in life-after-death: Boyd thus has Nelson reject what Clarke terms "an effete integrationism" ("Making" 394). By the end of his journey, Nelson is more closely aligned with the ideological stance of the heroic Clarice in Consecrated Ground, than to the "sellout" option Boyd proposes through the ultimately ineffectual Willem.
Boyd places a contradictory duality at the heart of Nelson's dramatic struggle by personalizing and complicating socioeconomic inequities through a blood relationship to the Ol' Massa character, a man apparently much loved by Nelson. It is therefore not only the absence of the strong female "head of household" that distinguishes Nelson's situation from Willem's in Consecrated Ground: a significant part of Nelson's heritage includes both the culture and the bloodline of the plantation's white slaveowner, and the accompanying complexities of relationships and alliances add depth and layered resonances to the character's psychology. Nelson's conflict in the play is not unlike the ambivalence displayed by Pauli Murray's grandmother in her family chronicle Proud Shoes. As African American scholar Ashraf H.A. Rushdy observes:
The person who stands out in Proud Shoes as the most curious example of anxiety and bewildering ambivalence is Murray's maternal grandmother, who exhibits a strange mixture of commitment to her African American family and an abiding nostalgia for the glory of her slaveholding ancestors. (Remembering 103)
In this same chapter, Rushdy points out that "the recognition of [racial] impurity produces a difficult and wearying set of contradictions". (106) Writing about a family history by Jan Willis, he goes on to say:
Jan Willis knew that there was no such thing as "purity" in any living race of people, yet she had difficulty confronting the complexity of her own makeup. She knew the long history of racial mixing in America but did not easily accept the fact of that mixing in her own family. As a theoretical proposition [...] Willis was not pained by the idea that her "'fair' skin came from someplace." But when she discovered that it came from a "specific someone", that abstract idea became "living flesh" and led to "emotional turmoil." [...] On the one hand, one may feel the joy of knowing precisely who one's ancestors were, while, on the other, one can feel what Wills describes as "absolute bereftness" at having to accept white ancestors. The truth may set us free, but it comes with a cost--the feeling of ambivalence. (Rememberinq 106)
With Ol' Massa dead, and the "Big House" in the throes of disastrous fiery destruction (notably not at the hands of Union soldiers, but in flames deliberately set by the Young Massa to prevent looting and ultimate possession of the property by the invading Northerners), Nelson and his half-brother engage in the following exchange:
YOUNG MASSA: Nelson? Come-'ere, boy. Nelson. I never let anything happen to you, Nelson. Upon my soul to God- nothing. And nor did Pappy. Especially Pappy. (beat)Know why, Nelly? Know why Nelson? You're the horseman--don't you know who your sire was, boy? Don't you know why you stayed in the Big House while all the other niggers was in the Quarter?
NELSON: (Sarcastically) Niggers don't rightly knows who dere daddies be. Jemney--my boy--juss one of da lucky ones.
Nelson surreptitiously slides his hand into the satchel ...
YOUNG MASSA: You gotta go, Nelly. You're a free man.
YOUNG MASSA: I CAN'T FEED YA!! I HAVE NOTHING!! YOU ARE FREE!! YOU GO--YA HEAH ME--GO!!
NELSON: Where? ... Where Ice go? ... Where Ice go? Dis de only life Ice knows--where Ice belongs. Ice be Nelson Williams Johns and dis da Twin Oaks plantation. (pause) Ice knows who my pappy was. And Ice knows who you is.
YOUNG MASSA: If you hadda been white--you would have owned Twin Oaks, Nelson--YOU!!! (sc. 10)
This scene with the younger Johns marks the turning point in the play's plot, and hence in Nelson's 'conscientization' (Paolo Freire's neologism, now widely used in popular education circles, for a transformational process towards political awareness.) It is at this point in the story that Nelson begins to move toward a more strongly held identification with Black culture and community, over identification with and loyalty to a white father and a white brother who are, the character finally determines, less his family than they are his oppressors.
In an earlier scene Nelson has chosen to remain with the drunken Young Massa rather than join the chaotic Jubilee of slaves celebrating their imminent freedom: he refuses to join his son Jemney on a trek to the north. Nelson essentially abandons his son to remain with the Young Massa, and suggests that his choice reflects loyalty not to the slaveowner, but to his unacknowledged half-brother as family:
JEMNEY:--Ice goes up norse, Pappy.
NELSON: But Jemney ya bees a Johns. Yer place is on da Twin Oaks plantation with your family
JEMNEY: But some-a us juss bees ADOPTED family, Pappy.
NELSON: (beat) Yous don' know what yer family bees Jemney. No--you stays, Jemney. You come back home wif me.
JEMNEY: It dere home, Pappy. DERE home. Ice have to find my home--me freedom. Ice has ta bee a man.
NELSON: OH!--AND ICE AIN'T A MAN!!?? (sc. 3)
In the same scene Nelson also calls on Jemney to remain in the South out of loyalty to his Black family:
NELSON: Jemney, ya promised. Ya promised when Ice die, Ice lie next to yer mudder in da Twin Oaks nigger cemetery.... Ice promised yer mudder--Ice promised my gal, Ella, dat when Ice pass-aways Ice lie next to 'er........ And Jemney, ya promised to put me dere. (sc. 3)
Thematically the younger man's departure signals, rather than the betrayal implied by Nelson, an affirmation of Black communalism, as Jemney joins those heading North to expected freedom. Boyd only grants Nelson his own sense of freedom (freedom from the ideology of paternalism) when he at last recognizes and accepts his own ambivalence, in addition to his confession of complicity in the enslavement of Black people. As Nelson tells Ella in his dying moments:
NELSON: So Ice floats in me white Sundee robe, Ella. Andas Ice bees floatin' Ice sees you and me and baby, Jemney ... Ice sees Twin Oaks, da Big House, Ol' Massa, da White House. Ice sees flames ravagin' da fields--and Ice has one longin' image of Young Massa. Ice see his bubblin' flesh ... He scream and scream and scream. And sumpin' cole run true me and Ice shot him. (A shot rings out ...) (sc. 14)
Audience members only learn of Nelson's murder of the Young Massa in this, the final scene of the play. This late "reveal" underscores Nelson's "emotional turmoil" (Rushdy Remembering, 106) in the moment of the murder, since he remembers the moment at the end of the play, rather than re-living the moment in the course of the play. Most other important events play out in scenes scripted as dialogue with another character (as opposed to the storytelling in the play), and are events that Nelson "relives" in present-tense, onstage action. Nelson's emotional turmoil, evident in his attendant unwillingness to relive the moment of the murder, clearly relates in part to the loss of the only "home" he as never known, since up to this point he has invariably self-identified as a "Johns." Further layering the trauma, while fires are raging through the burning plantation mansion, Boyd has the Young Massa speak the unspeakable by revealing their shared biological father and hence shared white heritage. Ironically, then, in the same moment that Young Massa confirms Nelson's claim to the Johns' name, that identity is also taken away from Nelson with the destruction of all that is familiar and beloved. But is there also an element here of "absolute bereftness" at having to accept white ancestors, and in particular at the naming of a "specific someone"? Boyd's preference for ambiguity leaves room for an audience to ponder the question. When Nelson uses the Young Massa's own gun against him, he is metaphorically killing off his last remaining link to the Southern patriarchal system, even though the patriarchy--as embodied in the figure of the Young Massa and as symbolized by the Big House--is already self-destructing.
George Boyd set out to write this play because, according to his initial impulse, he wanted to explore "what did an older freed slave do?":
There was a big migration to the North after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which by the way took place two full years after the war had begun. It occurred to me that the migration must have been easier for young people--they were mobile. What did the older slaves do, in the South, with no support, no money, no way of earning a living--because during Reconstruction even whites were looking for jobs. What would you do [if you were an older slave], after all that infrastructure came down?
Boyd adds layers of meaning to this conundrum of economic constraints on a so-called "freedom", by tying not just Nelson's economic dependence, but also his sense of self or identity, through his mixed bloodline, to the relatively privileged existence he had previously led on the Twin Oaks plantation. The oppositional effect of the son Jemney's very different, more highly politicized perspective of a slave's relationship to plantation owner, combined with Nelson's ultimate physical relocation to and political realignment with Africa, underscores again a certain polarization in Boyd's work when it comes to this clash of ideologies--a kind of "either/or" scenario--yet Wade in the Water accomplishes this without sacrificing complexity of character.
This question of character and perspective is central to consideration of Wade in the Water as performance, and as dramatic literature, and all the more since it marks yet another departure from Boyd's previous, larger-cast plays, where multiple perspectives are brought to the fore (although certainly not without judgement, clearly, on the playwright's part.) Take Consecrated Ground, where even the ambivalence of the sole white character Clancy, the representative of the City of Halifax, is given stage time, before he rationalizes to himself the "righteousness" of the City's paternalistic actions:
CLANCY: You know, Reverend, here I am, sittin' in a church in Africville. I mean, my friends would call it a "nigger" church. Here I am sittin' in this "nigger" church in Africville. I should be at the Boat Club, sipping whiskey with my buddies and laughing about the dirty niggers in Africville. But ya know Reverend? (swigs) I don't feel like laughing. I don't feel that way ... I mean, most of the places I been to out here, you can eat off their floors they're so waxed and polished.... Look, I believed ... I believe what I was told. I think what I'm doing is right. I'm doing the right thing.(1.11.455)
In Wade in the Water all secondary characters are explicitly presented as seen through Nelson's eyes. As the first of Boyd's plays to draw largely, though not exclusively, on first-person storytelling ("Ice"), rather than primarily through dialogue enacted in relationship to other onstage characters, Wade in the Water makes implicit intertextual reference to the genre of the 19th century slave narrative. On the other hand, by framing the story between the "bookends" of Nelson's drowning--a scene which both begins and ends the play--Boyd also invokes the memory play as theatrical tradition. Globe and Mail theatre critic Kamal Al-Solaylee put this quite succinctly in his review of the BTW production:
Boyd [...] mixes the tradition of the memory play with 19th century slave narratives, using the familiar theatrical structure of a journey. He shifts the debates around the testimonial importance of slave narrative from the fictional to the theatrical [...] The significance of Nelson's journey is not in its destination, but in its deconstruction of an intriguing past life--Nelson is, after all, a slave with a Harvard education. (Al-Solaylee)
Boyd's transformation of the 'neo-slave narrative' form (ii) from novel to theatrical performance is accomplished via a concomitant manipulation of the memory play tradition. The classic slave narrative is by definition a recounting of remembered experience. Boyd reconfigures classic slave narrative convention by opening his play at the end, rather than at the beginning, of his protagonist's life, ensuring that everything in between is clearly recognized as memory, rather than as fact. Boyd therefore draws simultaneously upon the authenticating convention of the slave narrative form, and the rhetorical convention of the memory play (iii). And while a significant amount of contemporary scholarship has examined the diversity of "sub-genres" among classic slave narratives (iv), it is nonetheless true that, for the most part, classic slave narratives unfold largely in chronological order, albeit often interspersed with reflections, descriptions, and some editorial commentary (v).
Wade in the Water's non-linear narrative ordering of these past events further underlines the role of memory, and perspective, in Nelson's storytelling and, perhaps more consequentially, the role of memory in the reliving of scenes with the other characters. Following Jeannette R. Malkin's analysis of memory plays in the modernist canon such as Williams' The Glass Menagerie, and Miller's Death of A Salesman, we can see that Wade in the Water also uses the subjectivity of a protagonist to "peer" into the mind, precisely in order to construct or reconstruct that character's Ife and psychology, and thus provide "interpretive frameworks for personal or social failure." (Malkin 21) Wade in the Water additionally displays a manipulation of time that is in some ways similar to Pinter's Betrayal, which, as Malkin points out, "moves backward and forward at once, and although memory is never simplistic or stable or even necessary reliable, Pinter's relentless retrospective structure retains its faith in linearity, causality, in the unified subject and the world, and in a source [...] that can be recovered through memory." (22) Although a departure from Consecrated Ground in that it is less faithful to a "pure" realism, Wade in the Water remains a play with a predominantly realist aesthetic rooted in a psychological construction of character. However, unlike the retrospective structure that Malkin refers to, Boyd places an emphasis on the immediacy of the remembered events.
Nelson is both storyteller and protagonist. The scenes he re-lives as central protagonist are scenes primarily comprised of dialogue, with less reliance on storytelling and direct audience address. Notably however, even when Nelson is in storytelling mode, the character often employs the present tense and speaks to the audience (or to Ella) as if in the actual moment of the flashback. We therefore receive Nelson's story as he lived it himself ('reinforcing the play's overall reliance on realism as a genre), while it is also clearly identified as memory. These memories, then, play out before an audience without their/our knowledge of Nelson "s own after-the-fact awareness of his dawning politicization: we take the journey with him. This technique also reinforces for audiences the urgency of Nelson "s final few moments "before God. "
Since I have myself stressed the importance of subjective perspective in Wade in the Water, it is important to mention here the subjectivity of my own individual perspective, and no doubt bias, as the (white woman) artistic director at the theatre company that first produced the play. Prior to production, the question of how to cast this play seemed to me potentially quite tricky, given that one actor must play multiple roles: three white characters and one Black character. I consulted a number of individuals (including, of course, the playwright himself and Richard Donat, the director) who had read or were otherwise familiar with the manuscript. Interestingly, my informal and entirely unscientific survey resulted, with the only exception being the director of the play, in a majority of white folks responding that they would have some difficulty seeing a Black actor play the white characters. On the other hand, across the board, those of African descent, along with other individuals of colour, responded with surprise that I even posed the question: of course a Black actor can play a white man, even in a largely realistic play. My initial instinct thus confirmed, and given that the mandate of BTW is to 'encourage and promote the development of a Black and Canadian theatre," I felt the company could also demonstrate to some artistic directors of other companies, and potentially (it seemed) to at least some white audience members, the untapped possibilities provided by so-called "non-traditional casting." In Canada there is apparently an ongoing resistance to such practices, where questions of Equity and diversity, while they may "make sense" to people for other kinds of workplaces, are deemed non-applicable to the theatre, with the rationale provided that casting is an artistic, rather than a social, choice, The director, playwright and I determined in consultation that we would cast for ability over any questions of race or ethnicity. The production went into rehearsal with two Black actors. Given the skills, versatility and virtuosity of these two (Tyrone Benskin as Nelson, and Nigel Shawn Williams in all other roles), I hope that the fallacy of the above "artistic" rationale can be more easily exposed for the false dichotomy it sets up. In retrospect, even my posing of the initial question seems silly and naive.
In discussions with the playwright and director, we furthermore considered that the casting of a Black actor as the white characters could actually reinforce elements of memory and perspective in the play, by saying: "This is how Nelson remembers the people he knew." The casting would in this way work against any conception or perception (coming back to questions of perspective) of whiteness as "the Norm", and Black people as "the Other." Indeed George Boyd, as a result of the resonances from the BTW production, has decided to specify this casting choice as the playwright's suggestion when the play is published.
A no less interesting factor playing into this decision around casting was the playwright's oft-stated preference for ambiguity in his plays. Since in Canada we rarely see non-traditional casting of lead roles in contemporary plays (even more rarely do we see this in a play that deals specifically with questions of race), it seemed likely that audience members not in the habit of accepting this convention might have to reflect for themselves on what basis the casting decision was made. George Boyd says:
I prefer ambiguity because I think theatre is a venue of thought, and I don't think an author's point of view should dictate someone making up their own mind about particular issues. It's easy for someone to come and see one of my plays, and see it differently than I do. They might come away with a whole different conclusion than what I thought it was about. I welcome that, because those are the kind of plays I like to see.
In other words, George Boyd prefers to leave audiences still posing questions at the end of his plays. He does not want to "connect all the dots" for people, in the hope of provoking further thought. In Consecrated Ground, for instance, audiences do not know after the final scene whether Clarice and Willem will, or will not, be able to reconcile or work through their opposing ideologies and his betrayal of her values.
Despite the principal character's choice in Wade in the Water to return to African roots, family and community, Boyd still wishes to leave us pondering the protagonist's inner struggles, i.e. his feelings of ambivalence. As but one example, following Nelson's confession that he murdered the Young Massa, he says:
Ice kilt Young Massa. Because-a pity or outta cause Ice hated him so ... Ice leave all dat ta Gawd. (sc. 13)
As another example, consider the play's title: while Wade in the Water refers implicitly to the coded slave song of the same name (reinforcing an intertextual relationship to flights to freedom, and hence to slave narrative form) the song itself is not explicitly referred to in the text, nor does the playwright include it in his suggestions for music. Audiences are left to make these connections for themselves, presumably with the intent that the resonances will be all the stronger for not being made explicit. Water imagery is ubiquitous in the play, and can be received as referring both to its cleansing or purification powers (baptism), and the power water held to conceal the escaping slave's route north by limiting the possibility that humans could follow the tracks, or dogs the scent. Through the several and various references to water, Boyd ensures that the character Nelson's relationship to the precious, vital, life-giving substance is as sacred and multi-layered as Clarice's relationship to the community and the geography of Africville in Consecrated Ground.
Both of these plays bring to light aspects of Black Nova Scotian history/ies. Although some may, at first glance, see Wade in the Water as dealing with primarily American subject matter, to do so would be to deny, or to betray ignorance of, the historical movement of Black Loyalists to Canada. Both plays expose and condemn governments and white society for repressive politics and deceitful tactics. Perhaps most significantly, both plays interrogate the role of personal responsibility in family relationships and community alliances. In an interesting new direction in the context of his work overall, Boyd accomplishes Wade in the Water's, affirmation of the collectivity of Black community through adherence to a single perspective in first-person narrative form, where Consecrated Ground, despite its representations of multiple perspectives, in a highly realistic "fourth wall" playing style, tends to accentuate tragedy over celebration.
(i) Cook lists the original source as Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
(ii) Ashraf H.A. Rushdy has written extensively on neo-slave narrative, his term for "contemporary novels that assume the3 form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the ante-bellum slave narrative." (Rushdy Neo-slave narratives, 3) Rushdy's analysis of four 20th century novels provided me with much insight in formulating my own thinking around Wade in the Water.
(iii) Baz Kershaw expands on the earlier theoretical framework of Elizabeth Bums (Theatricality: a study of convention in the theatre and in social life. London: Longman, 1972), in which these "two different types of convention ... govern the audience's reading of performance." (Kershaw 25) According to Kershaw, "the notion that there is a category of theatrical sign directly engaged with the ideology of the 'real' extra-theatrical works is crucial to an account of performance efficacy. Authenticating conventions or signs are the key to the audience's successful decoding of the event's significance to their lives. They determine the audience's reading of performance by establishing more or less transparent relationships between the fictionality of performance, the 'possible worlds' created by performance, and the 'real world' of the audience's socio-political experience outside theatre. In terms of my theoretical perspective, they enable an audience to perceive the specific ideological meanings of the show in relatively explicit ways." (26) I find it especially interesting to consider Wade in the Water's implicit reference to slave narrative as an authenticating convention, given the original importance assigned to establishing authenticity in the ante-bellum narratives in their own time, since, "in the antebellum period, slave narratives, whether self-authored or ghostwritten, almost always contained authenticating documents that established the credibility of the narrator." (Heglar 36)
(iv) See especially Charles J. Heglar's ReThinking the Slave Narrative (Westport CT: Greenwood, 2001)
(v) James Olney, perhaps somewhat reductively, outlines the usual conventions of classic ante-bellumslave narrative. ("I Was Born, 152-153)
(vi) Journalist Steve Jones' article in NOW Magazine is an eye-opener when it comes to the slow pace of non-traditional casting practices in Canada. He quotes one prominent artistic director as saying that the "work doesn't always lend itself to a racially mixed cast. If you're doing something set in an English drawing room, it's difficult not to reflect that in the casting. And I don't want to do token casting." ("Casting Aspersions: Bypassing minorities for key roles shows failure of the imagination." NOW, Toronto: Vol. 22 No. 52, Aug 28- Sep 3, 2003.)
Al-Solaylee, Kamal. "On the Cold Road to the Promised Land". Toronto: The Globe and Mail, 6 November 2003, R3.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Boyd, George Elroy. Consecrated Ground, in Testifyin' Volume II, Contemporary African Canadian Drama, ed. Djanet Sears. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2003. 397-483.
--. Personal Interview. 27 August 2004.
--. Wade in the Water (unpublished manuscript).
Clarke, George Elliott. "Making the 'Damn' Nation the Race's 'Salvation: The Politics of George Elroy Boyd's Consecrated Ground." Testifyin' Volume II, Contemporary African Canadian Drama, ed. Djanet Sears. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2003. 393-396.
--. "No Language is Neutral: Seizing English for Ourselves." Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 275-276.
Cook, William W. "Members and Lames: Language in the Plays of August Wilson". Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora. Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Edwards and Gus Edwards, eds. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. 388-396.
Escott, Paul D. Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
Fleischner, Jennifer. Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Heglar, Charles J. Rethinking the Slave Narrative. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Jones, Steve. "Casting Aspersions: Bypassing minorities for key roles shows failure of the imagination." NOW, Toronto: Vol. 22 No. 52, Aug 28-Sep 3, 2003.)
Kershaw, Baz. The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Malkin, Jeannette R. Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. (1956) New York: Harper & Row, 1978 ed.
Olney, James. "I Was Born." The Slave's Narrative. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 148-175.
Rushdy, Ashraf H.A. Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
--. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
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|Article Type:||Theater Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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