Fort Worth — In a 2016 article for The Atlantic entitled “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness,” author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses how black poverty is distinctly different than white poverty. Throughout the piece, in which the author also tackles the main points of an oppositional work lobbied against him and his concerns regarding reparations and black labor, a single term frequently presented itself amid both arguments: solidarity.
As I sat through Ekundayo Bandele’s If Scrooge Was a Brother, presented this month at Jubilee Theatre, I could not help but ponder the prevailing tenets of Coates’ argument in that article and the encompassing weight of that word — solidarity.
A riff on Dickens’ ubiquitous A Christmas Carol, Bandele’s script reimagines Scrooge and his dutifully wholesome employee Bob Cratchit in an African-American context and sets the action of the plot at the intersections of black poverty and black privilege. Therein lies, as I see it, the effect of this work as it rears up that overarching concept — solidarity. Bandele’s Eb Scroo, such as he is, is raised to believe he is “different” after winning a mentorship in his youth with real estate mogul Boss Marley, the old white head of a predatory lending company. After Marley’s death, Scroo inherits the mantle and continues the business’ shady practices of preying on poor African-Americans.
What prevails here is the depth to which meritocratic principles influence the concepts of solidarity within the African-American community, and how that same influence yields a much different result as it pertains to white poverty. Economic achievement and social development go hand in hand, much more so for black people, and therefore often alongside the requisite degradation of one’s own community. Bandele captures this with crushing realism in a scene from Scroo’s past, where he ingratiates himself with his white superiors by musing them with cruel, racial jokes.
Director D. Wambui Richardson does well to capture the complexity and tension of this otherwise straightforward plot. His staging is effective, laying appropriately on the drama and the humor of the script, while careful not to pander. A few of the more comical deliveries seem like low-hanging fruit, but that is a product of the script, and nevertheless, seem to juxtapose the weightier moments well. Kenneth Ellis’ stage design is simple, making use of a few simple props to suggest Scroo’s office, his bedroom, Cratchit’s dining room, and many others. It’s rather impressive.
J. R. Bradford delivers a rather one-note Eb Scroo, which actually serves to make the character’s stubbornness all the more convincing. Ron Johnson is warm and occasionally humorous as Bob Cratchit.
Standout performances, though, are provided by members of the supporting cast. Rita Kotey, who plays the Spirit of X-Mas, along with a host of important characters from Scroo’s past, offers interpretations that are devastating and, on a level, terrifying. As an ensemble member, she also gives a moving rendition of “Silent Night.”
The script leaves a notable amount of space for interpretation. Scroo, who, in the end, decides to attend the community church service over breakfast at the country club — a club that doesn’t accept him as a regular member — makes a single gesture of humility and generosity toward his own community, but never makes the unquestionable transformation toward benevolence and altruism.
With striking references to more current events, like the shooting of unarmed black men and boys by police and the practice of redlining to disenfranchise African-Americans from the true value of their properties, the piece is first a dialectical examination of society through the clever means of Dickens’ original work. As such, it tugs on intellect first and the heart second. And, beset with rousing, light-hearted musical numbers (mostly gospel versions of classic holiday favorites), it is a production that is quintessentially black — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Running through its dramatic center is this concept of solidarity: how that manifests itself in our community, and more importantly, how its absence plays a huge role in the cyclical disenfranchisement of African-Americans still to this day.