Friday, September 19, 2008

It took a mere 80 years, but I think we've made it, Mr. O'Neill ... .

Unlike your ugly Broadway premiere in 1924 when bomb threats, angry audiences, and outraged theater critics spat upon your play, Black and White theatergoers sat together in a small village theater in a trendy suburban tree-lined public square and experienced your controversial "All God's Chillun Got Wings" without incident. In fact, we shared the evening without being either defensive or confrontational. And it wasn't because we'd cleaned up your dialogue or ducked the hard questions. It was because in our era we've reached a place where the social order has given way to possibilities unheard of ever before in history in this nation that rose from a shameful history of human slavery to the very serious possibility of an African American ascendancy to the presidency of these United States! And it all has happened within the lifetimes of just 3 women in my family, my ggmother, Leontine Breaux Allen; 1846-1948 and enslaved from birth until she was nineteen; my mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet, 1894-1995; and me, Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin, 1921-present.

Last night's modest small town evening of theater was a triumph; so much more than I'd dared hope for. Admittedly, it was a self-selected audience of those who have an interest in both O'Neill and Robeson so may be atypical of the general suburban population. Nonetheless, in some strange way we were all (those of color and not) witnessing events from the same side of the social barrier and that is new. We are, indeed, living in a new day. We've crossed into unexplored territory and from this place a new world is coming into view.

At the end of the one-act play the cast joined us from the stage to talk about what we'd seen. I was still not comfortable with the content. "Chillun" was not redeemed by moving into dramatic form. It was disturbing to me in the reading and seeing it performed did nothing to make it more accessible. All I could think of was the tragedy of Paul Robeson, a proud black man whom I'd had the honor of meeting close up and personal. In fact, I was a part of a small group of young people who picketed the Paramount theater with him at the opening of Walt Disney's Song of the South which he believed to be unforgivably racist; and I agreed, even as a late teen. He was tall and stately and proudly black! He was a close friend of Matt Crawford, an old friend and a political activist I knew through my involvement with the Berkeley Co-op Movement. That weekend a group of us young people had gathered at Matt's to meet Robeson -- prior to our picketing assignment. We sipped pink lemonade and played "Spin the Bottle" and I received an innocent kiss on the cheek from the great man. Visions of that Sunday afternoon came back while watching the pitifully submissive character of Jim Harris on stage last night.

I wondered how Robeson, that powerful man; that proud black Adonis could have ever crushed himself into the role of a meek and submissive character, ever? I'd had a chance some years later to see him act as the iconic Moor, Othello, against Jose Ferrer's Iago at the Curran theater in San Francisco. That's the way I'll always remember him. That role with its ornate costumes and regal settings was in keeping with the Robeson of my memory. I cannot imagine what it cost him to play the role of Jim Harris for 100 performances ... and how such roles helped to fuel his eventual anger against a system which produced such tortured people.

During the Q&A when the play ended, the cast was wonderful in expressing their feelings about the roles they'd just played. The candor they showed freed the audience to be equally open and honest in their responses. The actor who'd played Jim opened by telling us how much he hated Jim in the beginning, but of how much he'd gained in the process of learning to understand and accept this cowering man of little pride. The rest of the cast was equally as candid and I felt a deep and abiding sense of gratitude that the O'Neill Foundation had trusted us all enough to bring all this together and with enough blind faith that we could handle it. I'm ashamed that I lacked that kind of faith. I was prepared, last night, for anything other than what we found -- a readiness to have those long lost conversations ... finally.

The National Park Service, the O'Neill Festival Committee, and director, Eric Hayes, are to be congratulated for taking on this bold experiment in theater and bringing together the human elements that gave it the social and political significance that it deserved.

You may rest easy now, Mr. O'Neill. And you, Mr. Robeson, your uncompromising courage and painful sacrifices may have gone a long way toward producing our new political reality.

Sleep well... .

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