I enter eta Creative Arts’ auditorium to find the curtains open and the stage set. It contains two benches, separated at center by a sturdy metal bar, the kind you might find against a mirror in a dance studio. There’s a sign in the middle as well, labeling each side of the stage. One side is labeled “White,” and the other is labeled “Colored.” The segregating line cuts through the playing area from top to bottom, so that it could hypothetically extend into the audience. It takes me a second to decide where to sit.
eta Creative Arts is a theater that, according to the evening’s program, “seeks to be a major cultural resource institution for the preservation, perpetuation and promulgation of the African American aesthetic.” The company’s current production juxtaposes two one-act plays, “Florence” and “Wine in the Wilderness,” exploring what it means to promulgate any racial agenda, white or black. Alice Childress, a contemporary of Lorraine Hansberry, wrote these plays in 1949 and 1969, respectively. Needless to say, when staged today they are period pieces, painting pictures of distinct moments in African-American history. But the material bristles with themes that apply directly to race and class relations today, illustrating a gulf that time has done too little to change.
I sit down and realize that I’ve sat on the White side of segregation. I stand up again and move to the Colored side. “Florence” is just as concerned with the electric boundary as I am. Nearly all the movement onstage refers to the power that this ideological divide carries for the characters populating a southern train terminal. The play revolves around two women waiting for a train from opposite sides of the barrier: Mama, a black mother, and Ms. Carter, a white actress. Ms. Carter is not your run of the mill racist; she’s very adamant on that point. She cares for black people and their plight, and wants to help them. She’s especially sorry for black people who almost look white, but are not white. This is cause enough for Mama to cross the barrier for the first time, excitedly insisting that black people are not in reality suicidal just because they cannot be completely white. Ms. Carter perceives this as aggression, and subtly directs Mama back over the line. At this point I feel at home in my choice of seat, that I am not the kind of white person to enforce segregation.
But the play does not end there. In the final scene, Ms. Carter generously offers Mama’s daughter, who aspires to be an actress, a job. The job is doing laundry and house cleaning. Ms. Carter now crosses over to Mama’s side of the banister, overcome with generosity. Mama grabs her wrist and declares, very sternly: “It’s against the law for you to be over here with me.” It’s a strong statement: if white people intend to reinforce racial inequality through patronization, then the correct black response is to enforce racial barriers. I wonder if there’s penance I need to do, having stepped into a theater where I am the only white audience member. But then I realize that I wasn’t stopped at the door; in fact, the box office and ushers were all exceedingly friendly. The lights come up and we have a fifteen intermission.
“Wine in the Wilderness” begins in an artist’s apartment to the sounds of gunfire outside. The play takes a trip inside a different variety of black experience, exploring the ways that different African Americans can generalize about their brothers and sisters. Director Mignon McPherson Stewart pegged this as the reason why she chose the play, saying “I hear a lot of judging people by the outside…That’s an issue we still have.” In this scenario, Bill, a middle-class painter, has decided to document black America with a triptych. For the last third of his triptych, he needs a very low-class woman, to represent the worst of his race. Tommy, the model he finds, subverts his notions of class structure within the African-American community, and in so doing questions the whole idea of a unified African-American aesthetic. Her name is short for Tomorrow, and when Bill hears this he quotes Macbeth, saying, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” In response Tommy says, “I bet Shakespeare was black.” This one quote sets my heart at ease and sets me worrying at the same time. On the one hand, it parodies the attempt to theorize an archetypal blackness, and refuses any judgment of African-American art or people based on such a universal standard.
But it also takes Shakespeare away from me. It claims for eta’s aesthetic a wider range of culture than that produced by people of the “correct” skin color. It also challenges the idea that any skin color can be correct, in any venue or discipline. This is a good thing, but it makes me nervous, for no other reason than that my privilege is being confronted. It’s a good nervousness.
Bill and his middle class friends don’t know what to do, Tommy says, “when you run into us [African Americans] living and breathing.” When I run into a theater that’s put living and breathing actors in historical roles, rather than simply theorizing about race relations, I also have trouble knowing what to do. And there isn’t much to do but make the trip to 75th and South Chicago, because where else can you see the line so plainly? Nowhere else can the boundaries that divide race and class be made so explicit and visible in as simple an action as choosing to sit down.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through March 3. Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm and 7pm. $30, $15 student. (773)752-3955. etacreativearts.org