I highly recommend seeing “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward at Theatre 80 Saint Marks on 80 Saint Marks Place in Manhattan before it closes this Sunday, December 11th, 2016. It plays every night at This is an amazing play with a message that is incredibly timely and incredibly relevant to the incoming Trump administration. This play is set in a town in the United States and the premise of this play is that all Black people are absent, and the remaining white people are in a state of disarray.
This play is a satire but I think it is a remarkably relevant satire that shows how the U.S. economy is absolutely dependent on the labor and presence of Black people. In Ward’s notes of this play, he writes: “the play is conceived for performance by a Black cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white face.” When I was in the audience, I had a unique experience of laughing at more jokes than those of white audience members. It was definitely a very interesting experience. I walked in about fifteen minutes into the show to see the scene with Mary (China L. Colston) and John (Daniel Carlton) and a yelling baby. They talked about their maid Lula however, like all Black individuals in this town, Lula is absent. One gets the impression hearing the exchange between Mary and John that their entire sense of comfort and livelihood depends on Lula. This reminds me of the ways that president-elect Donald Trump will depend on the expertise of the staff of the previous administration in order to maintain some level of respect for the United States as a nation that is run on an economy based on a finite resource.
The mayor (Charles Weldon) is the pulse of the town and scrambles to respond to the tragedy of absent Black people. He first calls the hospital then resolves to look in prison for the Nigras that have disappeared: “then Nigras in jail are the most important Nigras we got!” This recalls Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow where she describes the mass incarceration industry that also depends on creating political prisoners that essentially threaten the status quo. For Ward to write the Mayor’s line saying that Nigras in jail “are most important,” means that these are the Nigras who are influential and could potentially spread information to challenge the status quo. Supporters of the Trump administration such as Charlie Kirk since Trump’s election has started ProfessorWatch, intended to monitor and list professors who are accused arbitrarily of “advancing leftist propaganda.” The Mayor’s line here also recalls Blacks who were persecuted by McCarthyism including Ward himself who, along with Lorraine Hansberry, was a member of the Progressive Party. “Day of Absence” is a low key critique of not only of Southern conservatism. No character represents this Southern conservatism more than his Clubwoman character (played memorably by Cecelia Antoinette) who said: “it has always been pure, delicate, lily-white images of Dixie femininity which provided backbone, inspiration and ideology for our male warriors in their defense against the on-rushing Black horde. If our gallant men are drained of this worship and idolatry—God knows! The cause won’t be worth a Confederate nickel!”
(with Cecelia Antoinette)
This is basically the beliefs of the alt-right movement and the Neo-Nazi voices that we are hearing more often since Trump’s election. This play is not only a tacit critique of how U.S. society endorses Neo-Nazi beliefs; this play is also a critique of white liberal philanthropy. No character seems to point out Ward’s obvious critique of philanthropy better than his Mrs. Aide character (Kim Weston-Moran). She tells Ward’s reporter character that “disruptions of our pilot projects among Nigras saddles our white community with extreme hardship…We place them as maids, cooks, butlers, and breast-feeders, cesspool-diggers, wash-basin maintainters, shoe-shine boys, and so on—mostly on a volunteer self-work basis.” The reporter then asks: “hired at prevailing salaried rates, of course?” Mrs. Aide replies “God forbid! Money is unimportant. Would only make ‘em worse. Our main goal is to improve their ethical behavior.” Mrs. Aide is describing the function of the cyclical rise and crash pattern of the U.S. economy in funding programs for inner city youth then suddenly stopping that funding due to dramatic economic recessions. Ward’s play shows how budget cuts that affect communities of color the hardest are deliberately created an arbitrary choice by those who, as James Baldwin, “believe that they are white.” Most provocative to me however was the character of Pious (played INCREDIBLY UNFORGETTABLE by Count Stovall who performed work of my mentor Leslie Lee), who is the clergy representative of this white town who insisted that their absence is a work of Hoodoo meant to confound deliberately white people and disobey God.
(with Count Stovall)
I was amazed as to how Douglas Turner Ward wrote this character. This character’s theology explains the difference between a theology of Pat Robertson and a Toussaint L’Ouverture. Ward’s Pious would definitely side with a Pat Robertson.
The most dramatic part of this satire was when the Mayor pleads with the Blacks to return to their servant status to this U.S. town by showing the servant paraphernalia the Blacks used: “Look, George! I brought he rag you wax the car wit’…Don’t this bring back memories, George, of all the days you spent shining that automobile to shimmering perfection…And you, MANDY!…Here’s the waste basket you didn’t dump this morning, I saved it just for you!” I laughed so hard at this line. This is a phenomenal production that I highly highly recommend seeing. I was honored to learn from veterans of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in a talkback immediately following the show that included NEC veterans like David Downing who played the Wizard in this play, whom Woodie King Jr. in the audience said he was a fan of; and Allie Woods who played the Mayor’s assistant in Jackson.
NEC veteran Phylicia Rashad creditedAllie Woods with inviting her to the NEC’s Monday Night Series which began her memorable stage and television career.
(me and Allie Woods)
In the talkback, Allie Woods said that when the NEC production of “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” he was in toured in England, members of the audience saluted Hitler, and the cast did not feel particularly protected by the London police.I appreciated Theatre 80 Saint Marks hosting the NEC production’s 50th Anniversary Season and the director of this theater saying that Ward’s friendship with lawyer Arthur Kinoy who defended Bobby Seale and Huey Newton when they were arrested in 1968. This production is a A MUST SEE IN NEW YORK CITY BEFORE IT CLOSES SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11TH. –RF.