In “Soft,” which influences Donja R. Love’s new play at MCC Theater, a teenager wonders where black boys go when they die. At the end, the audience gets the answer: a flower-covered oasis where black guys can really be themselves.
The play usually takes place in a classroom at a boarding school for troubled children; Mr. Isaiah, a young English teacher who has his own history with the law, tries to reach the six black and brown students in his class so they don’t get lost in the system, an opportunity his boss sees as an inevitability.
Love’s play is one of several recent Off Broadway productions in which redemption comes at the end of tales of black oppression in contemporary society. The works share a familiar set-up that serves as a sort of urban parable about the ways in which the education system and other institutions can sabotage and trap people of color.
In trying to get their characters to overcome that adversity, the playwrights often face the same narrative hurdle: How can these stories end? What does redemption look like in a world where the odds are high against these black characters, and at a time when, post-Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd, artists are once again held accountable for responsibly portraying Blackness.
There seem to be three variations of the end of redemption: transcendence through death to a heaven or a paradise; escape from an institution; or a self-conscious meta-narrative pivot. However, each can have its pitfalls. The first may come across as an idealization of death, yet another example of a black tragedy turned into a beautiful spectacle. The other two — an escape or a narrative pivot — can be seen as ways for the work to get around the bleak reality of how black people are treated in our society.
But what about the kind of redemption that best fits the story while also reflecting our reality?
Throughout “Soft” flowers are a prominent motif: a student sketches them in his notebook and on his writing assignments; petals fall from the ceiling as if a gentle rain falls on the heads of the audience; and they frame the stage for the entire show.
At the end, in a gesture reminiscent of the final moments in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” and Alesea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (which, along with “Soft”, was directed by Whitney White) the Black and brown spectators are singled out; they are asked to rise so that they can receive a bouquet of flowers from a dead black boy who now lives in this Eden. The sentiment is beautiful – a reminder to the black audience members to celebrate their own softness and vulnerability.
When I attended the show (which was to run in MCC until July 10), several people left crying. I was moved, but also sad. Despite the beauty of the show, it was a different story in the end that ended in black deaths. Perhaps part of the beauty is the loss; the flowers suggest a momentary grace.
Is there a version of the black paradise that doesn’t come with an asterisk – a major disaster, accident or even death?
A similar question occurred to me last year while watching the Broadway production of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over.” This “Waiting for Godot”-inspired play about race and police brutality ends with a black man, suddenly endowed with divine power, wandering into a lush garden paradise, but only after he redeems a white man from his sins and allows him to venture there first.
Nwandu has spoken of the edits she made to the end of the piece, as there’s no easy conclusion to a story about a persistent reality in America. Unfortunately, the play’s new ending seemed to subconsciously suggest that black redemption, if at all, can only come after the absolution of the white oppressors; even when a black character has finally found agency, he still comes second to paradise.
In Mansa Ra’s “…What the End Will Be,” a Roundabout Theater Company production on stage until July 10 at the Laura Pels Theater, redemption is a haven for happy lovers. The play takes us into a home of three generations of gay black men: the eldest, Bartholomew, a widower who lived with his male partner after the death of his wife, is now ill and shares a home with his son Maxwell, an uptight, selfish hated careerist with a violent streak, and Maxwell’s teenage son Tony, a jock with a flamboyant boyfriend. With virtually no plot or character development, “…What the End Will Be” stumbles into a moment of redemption, but again, the prize is a black man’s life.
Bartholomew struggles through his painful final days with bone cancer, all the while hallucinating an image of his late partner laying sunflowers throughout the set. The play martyrs his gay black elder and offers him deliverance from death, as if “burying the gays” wasn’t still a prominent – and problematic – figure of speech in today’s entertainment and culture.
And to make matters worse, Bartholomew’s death becomes a perfect lesson for his son and grandson, helping them interact and re-accept a version of their idiosyncrasy. The dying black man becomes a symbol of family ties, gay love and self-acceptance – his death brings redemption to the other characters.
In any case, death is only one kind of escape. In Dave Harris’s “Exception to the Rule,” a class of black students in detention, à la “Breakfast Club,” seeks a literal escape, thanks to the addition of an awkward metaphor about the failures of the education system and the school pipeline to the jail.
The students, all black and stranded on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, bicker, gossip and wonder where their noticeably absent detention teacher is; after all, they cannot leave without his permission. The student most out of place in this bare-bones allegory of incarceration is the overjoyed Erika, who is judged and mocked for her “good girl” demeanor, until she eventually engages in a patronizing diatribe in which she criticizes her colleagues for not being tough enough. didn’t work, didn’t switch code, didn’t follow the rules to climb out of the broken system they’re stuck in.
In the end, Erika is the only one to escape detention, and the others are presumably trapped in this limbo. But the takeaway is unclear. Should we praise Erika for her anti-Blackness, her privilege, her Uncle Tom maneuvers? If not, her escape feels oddly celebrated in the play (until June 26 at Roundabout’s Black Box Theater). Or else this is the most cynical ending imaginable.
James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham,” which plays at the Public Theater through July 17, adapts, then breaks out of “Hamlet’s” story. While the Shakespeare original ends with almost everyone in a body bag, the contemporary version of Ijames challenges the idea that a story about black characters — especially gay black characters — must necessarily end in tragedy.
The show’s avatars for Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes are all gay, despite the homophobia, gender stereotypes, and toxic masculinity that run in their families. But these characters decide that they will not kill each other; they will not die today.
Their redemption – a merry disco-drag cotillion of sorts – is twofold: a challenge to the expectations of tragedy within the piece and a hopeful look at intolerance across gender expression, vulnerability and sexuality beyond. By knowingly breaking free from the trappings of tragedy and the social narrative of the Black Death, Ijames gives his characters the ability to free themselves from the crushing institutions of hatred that thrive around them.
On the one hand, you could get to the end of “Fat Ham” and see it as an easy way out, a way for the playwright to write the tragedy without just writing another black tragedy. You could say that the play’s eventual redemption is just a sort of deus ex machina, a writer showing his hand to save his behind.
And yet in the stylized, self-conscious world of ‘Fat Ham’, the characters have the power to effect change. They can see the world around them and the ways in which they are oppressed, and choose to invoke their paradise. They find their own redemption. More than victims, they are their own saviors.