Testifyin': Contemporary African Canadian Drama, Volume II.
Testifyin' Volume II is a collection of extremely powerful plays that range in theme from land rights to metrosexuality, from slavery to religion. Djanet Sears' preface suggests that the theme of her own plays is the "internalization of the idea of whiteness as central and blackness as periphery in the psyches of black people" (p. iv). This could very well be the theme--with varying valencies--of the anthology itself.
Lorena Gale's Angelique explores the exploitative mechanism of slavery. It is interesting that Gale does not seek to structure her play around race alone, but portrays Angelique's sexual, psychological, and economic exploitation and concomitant debumanization as the effect of a particularly troubling intersection of race, gender, and class. The story of Angelique is paralleled, in a distorted fashion, in the story of her exploiters, Francois and his wife Therese. Andrew Moodie's A Common Man's Guide to Loving Woman is a tale of four men, each with his own definition of, and ideas about, love. Cross-racial desire, in this play, is frequently at odds with black masculinity and feminism. Woven into the theme is a subtext of child abuse, sexual harassment, and the crisis of masculinity itself. Jean and Dinah Who Have Been Locked Away in a World Famous Disco Since 1956 Speak Their Minds Publicly by Tony Hall (with Rhoma Spencer and Susan Sandiford) radically redefines black womanhood with the portraits of two female calypsonians. On Calypso Monday, the dying Dinah does not want to put on the mask again. The retrieval of their past reveals two traditions: black feminine warriorhood and sexual exploitation.
George Elliott Clarke's jazz opera, Quebecite, deals with the amorphous nature of identity (individual and cultural) in its story of two inter-racial couples. Clarke emphasizes the freedom to dream as a political act, and one of interrogation. Malcolm's song, "Quebecois claim that they're the white niggers of America ... but I'm the black negre of Quebec," and Laxmi emblematize the problematic nature of skin color and emotional affiliations. Trey Anthony's powerful da Kink in my Hair: Voices of black womyn questions notions of African women's beauty. Kinky hair is more than a metaphor, it is the very essence of a feminine spirituality rooted in the material. Sherelle's powerful speech captures, with the proper degree of emotion and pathos, the condition of such womyn: "Don't be acting too Black because then they have to deal with my Blackness every morning. So I put my Blackness or lack of Blackness in some womyn of color box to make you more comfortable" (I.1). In Frederick Ward's Somebody Somebody's Returning Roena, returning to her daughter, Najean, after seven years in prison, discovers that Najean has, in order to cope with her mother's absence, "invented" a friend: ironically, Odell, her cross-dressing uncle, whom Roena had killed. The play captures the painful attempts of both women to reconcile themselves to the past and discover their affections for each other.
Debbie Young and Naila Belvett's yagayah is a fascinating exchange between the working class Mary and the more affluent Imogen. Set in Kingston and Montreal, separated by a decade, the play maps growing up as a series of encounters with sadness, separation, anxieties, and bonding. Dreams of an-Other place turn out to be not very good in reality. As Imogene puts it, "Mary this reality is shitty and lonely" (scene six). George Elroy Boyd's powerful Consecrated Ground is about displacement, not as in a move to a new place, but as the loss of an old and familiar one. Based on the anti-Black tensions of the late 1960s, Consecrated Ground deals with the slow "disappearance" of Africville, the historical black village near Halifax. Boyd's brilliant play effectively sketches the trauma of the brutal (and one-sided) clash between African tradition and white modernity, and suggests that when Willem Lyle (the protagonist) signs over his wife's property to the city of Halifax, he has effectively killed generations of black rights (Lyle does the signing on the coffin of his son, Tully, who has been killed by rats. The rats live in the vicinity because the town authorities have deliberately placed a garbage dump there).
Djanet Sears' The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is one of the most powerful plays in the collection. Rainey, mourning her daughter's death--as a doctor, Rainey diagnosed the meningitis too late--embarks on a theological-religious quest for solace. Meanwhile her aging father, Abendigo, seeks to retrieve and re-vivify black history, erasing the reduction of Blacks to mere ornaments, and re-telling their contributions to society. Thus, Abendigo and his friends steal Abendigo's grandfather's uniform. Abendigo's grandfather fought for the British in the 1812 war. The place where he had been granted land for his services, Negro Creek, is, at the end of the play, renamed, "Moggie Road." And Moggie is (what else?) but a white settler.
Testifyin' Volume II is an extraordinary collection of plays. The range of themes--dispossession, growing up, displacement, slavery, sexuality, sexual abuse, history, the family--addressed in the plays is impressive. Thus, where Sears' play effectively conflates individual and communal suffering, linking the personal with the social, Moodie's A Common Man's ... explores a more "closed" context of male bonding. History is central to most plays and occupies center-stage in the plays of Gale, Hall, and Boyd.
Reading a play such as Consecrated Ground from an India where Tribals are constantly displaced from their ancestral lands--and "relocated," of course, to utterly useless land as acts of charity and modernization--brings home the awareness of a common denominator of suffering. While there may be a hierarchy of victims--ranging from Angelique in Gale's play to Willem Lyle in Consecrated Ground to Mary in yagayah (who cries in anguish: "white images of beauty i know they cannot set me free/these nurtured insecurities as they commodify me/robes are riding on my back as they build the economy," scene fifteen)--what is clear is that greed, "modernization," and "development" are idealist concepts that become exploitative practices.
Testifyin' Volume II captures the anger and the despair of a generation of African Canadians who have a deep sense of betrayal (best seen in Sears and Boyd's plays). White notions of development, beauty, liberation, and individuality have always excluded the black man, and more effectively, the black woman. However, plays such as Jean and Dinah ... and da Kink ... capture the double bind of the black woman. The thematic of touching hair in Trey Anthony's play suggests the close association of spirituality and materialism, an association with great political potential.
Testifyin' Volume II is a testimony on several issues and grounds: racist exploitation, sexual oppression, class war, legal discrimination, and the corrugated machinations of white modernity. However, as plays such as Trey Anthony's and Lorena Gale's reveal, it is also a testimony to faith, courage, and the ultimate determination of a displaced people. And it is finally about justice. Reader: bear witness.
Pramod K. Nayar
Department of English
University of Hyderabad, India
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|Author:||Nayar, Pramod K.|
|Publication:||Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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