Monday, August 8, 2016

The Truth Behind Acting Black

This stunning performance perfectly depicts the heart of our race problems in America


I've often heard people question why art matters. When we have small budgets for necessities such as paving roads or education or clean water, why should we make room to fund the arts as well?

It's always hard to answer that question well (even though I powerfully believe supporting the arts means supporting the essence of humanity), but now I know: all I need to do is point such naysayers to Carlyle Brown and particularly his work Acting Black.

Acting Black just completed a brief two-day run at the Guthrie in which all the performances were free and sold out. Held by the Guthrie in response to the Philando Castille shooting and larger Black Lives Matter movement, Acting Black was perfectly poised to spark a necessary, hard conversation about racism in Minnesota. As Artistic Director Joseph Haj said:

"In light of recent local and national events, we gathered as a staff to discuss how we might be most useful to our community in these uncertain times. Carlyle's performance quickly rose to the surface of that discussion. The combination of local artists and the material seemed fitting and appropriate for this moment in our world. We are proud to present this powerful theater piece, and hope it will serve as a springboard to conversation and community building."

And what a springboard it was.
Carlyle Brown masterfully delivered the presentation in a one man performance that quietly seeped through the audience's psyche. He combined an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject with Morgan Freeman's friendly, authoritative demeanor to deliver a powerful history of racist stereotypes and their full perversion of representing minorities in every aspect of society, from advertising to books to television to movies and beyond.

Acting Black combines the best traditions of monologue, historical research, PBS specials and the wisdom of folklore into a densely packed one-hour long performance. As Carlyle said it's really intended to educate a white audience, but also engaged many of the people of color in the room. The focus is mostly on representations of African Americans in media but also spreads to include other minorities such as Native Americans, Latinx, Asian immigrants and more.

The most striking finding of Acting Black is how specifically we can trace the origins of America's racist past. Specific damaging stereotypes such as blackface and the Jim Crow dance go straight to 1829; if we had a time machine we could prevent them from being invented at all. It is incredible to see how these powerful, negative stereotypes were able to spread so widely in an age before internet or even telephones could spread the news. That these stereotypes continue to exist to this day is a shameful reality that we must all work to fix.

And where do we start? That was the focus of the after-performance discussion, which pushed a group of normally shy Minnesotans to reveal some deep fears about our current state. The frank questions and answers were a necessary push to encourage those of us with privilege - who are white, straight, middle or upper class, have higher education - to leverage our privilege to a useful benefit. What do we, who are so well positioned in society, really have to lose by supporting change? Many solutions were offered, the most powerful being to stop the polite "Minnesota Nice" reaction to racist conversation. We must hold each other to a higher standard, and we must start with ourselves and those around us: our families and friends. It's uncomfortable, yes, but until the bodies of our brown brothers and sisters are safe, we cannot stop. In the immortal words of Viktor Frankl:

You may of course ask whether we really need to refer  to "saints." Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. 

So, let us be alert - alert in a twofold sense: 
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. 
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake. 

Acting Black was a perfectly poised exposition of the importance of using art to explain difficult concepts. It provided an educational platform to spark meaningful progress on some devastating issues facing us today, and I can only hope the Guthrie offers this show again and continues their community gatherings series as planned. Acting Black was a magnificent offering in the wake of Philando Castille's shooting; thank you, Guthrie, for offering that up.