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Scripting the Absurd: Slavery as a Subject in Contemporary African-American Theater

photo of Elam
Jun 24 2020

Over the past several years, African-American playwrights have grappled with the theme of slavery through the lens of the absurd. Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” peers into the bedroom of several interracial couples using “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” to overcome waning sexual desire. In scenes that seemed designed to arouse audience discomfort, the couples perform sexual exploitation between masters and servants, adorned in period attire. Suzan Lori-Parks’s “White Noise” explores another absurdist contemporary performance of slavery when a black man asks his white friend to “enslave” him for forty days, binding him in a slave collar. In “An Octoroon,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins reimagines the 1859 play “The Octoroon” by Dion Boucicault about the trade in light-skinned “fancy women.” In Jacobs-Jenkins’ version, black characters dress up in whiteface and Boucicault makes an appearance as a character in the story. 

What do these three plays have in common? Theater scholar Harry Elam, a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow, who also holds the title of Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities, argues that the three plays grapple with the historical legacy of slavery to explore issues of race, gender, sex, and identity in the present. In a presentation to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows, Elam made the case that all three plays reckon with slavery through the realm of the absurd: through the performance of slavery’s myriad forms of sexual coercion as couples therapy, through a contemporary experiment in enslavement between a black and white friend, and through a romping, campy jaunt into the various hues of racism and colorism, told through a reimagined mid-19th century play. Elam argues that presenting these absurdist performances of people performing slavery in the present allows all three playwrights to grapple with interracial relationships and interracial desire in contemporary context. 

The characters of “Aunt Ester” and “Black Mary” present archetypal characters that connect 20th century black womanhood with black womanhood under slavery and to African womanhood.

To understand the theatrical provenance of all three plays, Elam believes we need to look to the famous 20th century playwright August Wilson. Elam’s scholarship on Wilson is well known; his book The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson won the Errol Hill Award from the American Society for Theater Research. While Wilson’s 10-Play Century Cycle leapfrogs across the 20th century to tell the story of a black family between 1904 and 1997, the plays refer frequently to the reverberations of slavery and African ancestral connections in more recent African-American history. Elam argues, for instance, that the characters of “Aunt Ester” and “Black Mary” present archetypal characters that connect 20th century black womanhood with black womanhood under slavery and to African womanhood. The 285-year-old Aunt Ester requires the audience to suspend disbelief and interpret the plays in the Century Cycle in both literal and metaphoric terms. 

Viewing “Slave Play,” “White Noise,” and “Octoroon” as part of the tradition of August Wilson in moving across time and space to explore race, sex, sexuality, and identity allows us to see how all three plays use absurdist performances of slavery in order to grapple with the chaotic and often farcical realities of the present. 

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