Dallas — Some of the most courageous actions in 1965 were through the words of writers, in particular black writers such as James Baldwin, Lonnie Elder and LeRoi Jones. 1965 in America was a volatile year. By the time Douglas Turner Ward’s one-act play, A Day of Absence, opened off-Broadway that November, Malcolm X had been assassinated. Seeking the right to vote, protestors led by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. were so viciously attacked on a bridge in Alabama that the day has since been referred to as Bloody Sunday. Alabama blacks were still rankled by the church bombing two years earlier that had killed four little girls. In August, LBJ finally signed the Voting Rights Act, but that move had repercussions that are still being felt today.
For a black playwright to have written, produced and directed a reverse satirical minstrel play with black actors in whiteface during such racially tense times was not just bold — it was dangerous.
A Day of Absence was the play that energized the creation of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) by Ward, Robert Hooks and Gerald Krone. The run was successful, garnering for Ward an Obie Award for acting and a Drama Desk Award for writing. Ward and the NEC succeeded in demonstrating black stories were worth telling, and that black people were fully capable of writing, producing and telling those stories with autonomy. It is the latter that ultimately gives A Day of Absence such historical and cultural importance.
One could say that Metamorphosis: a new living theatre director and co-founder Aaron Zilbermann and co-founder Tiana Kaye Johnson’s selection of Ward’s play as the company’s second production is a bit quixotic, but in actuality this piece which could have become too dated, is instead resoundingly relevant. (This year Johnson resigned from the company, for personal reasons.)
This play looks at what occurs during a day in the lives of white southern townspeople when the black folks are nowhere to be found. The exception is those who were hospitalized and who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to heal.
In this production (performed March 23-25), nine actors assumed 14 characters. By using fewer actors, the play became more of an ensemble piece, which worked well for the story in the Margo Jones Theatre space.
The play opens as Luke (Christopher Dawson) and Clem (J.R. Bradford) are lazing around on a porch when Clem notices “something funny.” Across town, Mary (Octavia Davis) and John (Jamall Houston), having been awakened by their crying baby, realize their maid has not shown up for work and neither of them has a clue how to care for their infant. Luke and Clem figure out what was missing. There was not one black person (although the white people use other words for them) to be seen anywhere.
The mayor (McClendon Giles) was besieged with calls from panic-stricken citizens reporting missing black employees. Telephone switchboard operators (Imani O, Octavia Thomas, Renee Miche’al Jones) revolted. This wonderful switchboard moment was well conceived, staged and delivered. Lighting (Ashley Oliver) framed the action to make that scene work. The mayor became increasingly frustrated as his office was also struggling to function without its black workers.
Zilbermann found ways to insert present-day references without being too heavy-handed, mostly visual through costumes (Yvonne Johnson), signage, and makeup (Vivienne Vermuth). Instead of wearing full whiteface, Giles’ makeup was more orange with the white reserved for the area around the eyes. That coupled with a deliberately unfortunate yellow-orange wig was referential enough to bring the play forward into the present day without compromising the text or tenor of the play.
Among the angry visitors to the mayor’s office was Businessman (Douglas Carter), but the noisiest among the complainers was Club Woman (Renee Miche’al Jones). The more broadly drawn characters were portrayed with vivid and hilarious color by McClendon Giles, Renee Miche’al and Octavia Thomas.
Radio announcer and the only "white" actor in the play (Jon Garrard), reported out as people rioted in the streets. Desperate, the mayor pled with the President, Governor, and finally the NAACP to assist. Reaching out through a special radio announcement to the missing black citizens, he begged them to return. Tired, the angry townspeople finally dispersed and returned to their homes. The next morning, gradually and uneventfully, the black people returned as if nothing unusual had happened. The play ends, leaving one to wonder what might have happened next.
Zilbermann was able to get the cast to trust the humor within the words, resisting pushing it beyond the wide berth satire already affords. Metamorphosis demonstrated its respect for the script and understanding of the moments that inspired its writing. Sadly, the idea that A Day of Absence will become too remote for contemporary American audiences is sweet, but doubtful.
It’s too bad that there could not have been a longer run because this was a strong production of a work that would generate plenty of conversation.