Theater review: 'Acting Black' is a reminder that we have a long way to go in dismantling racism

Image courtesy event organizers

Image courtesy event organizers

As the stunning royal wedding unfolded on Saturday, with a gospel choir and a Chicago bishop reflecting Meghan Markle's African-American identity, the white British royals displayed a range of reactions. Some looked delighted, some looked uneasy, some seemed to be repressing giggles.

Lowry Lab Theatre

Whatever else was in their minds, they all carried the legacy of damaging stereotypes that have been afoot in England since at least the 19th century, when "Daddy" Rice — the father of American minstrelsy — brought his blackface "Jim Crow" act to enthusiastic British audiences.

On Saturday night, African-American playwright/performer Carlyle Brown described the origins of Rice's act as part of his solo show, Acting Black, at St. Paul's Lowry Building, where Illusion Theater is presenting a weeklong run.

The hour-long presentation has the Minneapolis-based artist exploring the concept of African-American identity as it's been presented and perverted by caricatured images developed by and for insecure white audiences, often with black performers compelled to participate. From minstrelsy, Brown's historical overview — illustrated with slides — extends up through Uncle Tom ("and his brother, Uncle Ben, from the rice box"), Hattie McDaniel's Mammy, and Hoke the chauffeur from Driving Miss Daisy.

A recurring touchpoint is Jean Genet's The Blacks, a 1958 play created very explicitly for white audiences, in which several members of an all-black cast wear white masks to play a queen and her entourage. For Brown, The Blacks dramatizes the phenomena of "acting black," the sometimes overt and sometimes subtle ways in which black people — whether onstage or not — will calibrate their self-presentations to meet the biased expectations of white observers.

No one on Saturday mentioned the royal wedding, but there was plenty more to be said during a post-show discussion in which Brown initially asked audience members of color to refrain from participating. His argument, similar in respects to that made by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge in the widely read book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, is that white people ourselves need to do the work of dismantling white supremacy.

No sooner had the discussion begun than a white woman complained of being harassed by black men on the street. A white man claimed he'd never seen racism until he moved to the Twin Cities. Someone recommended that everyone read Ta-Nehisi Coates. There were suggestions that white Americans just need to find love in our hearts — although dismantling structural racism will take a little more than that, a young woman of color pointed out after the discussion opened to include all attendees.

Theater is rarely more powerful than when it attacks platitudes about how storytelling inevitably leads to tolerance and understanding. Doubtless, generations of white Americans have walked out of Gone With the Wind thinking their eyes have really been opened, and — as Brown suggests — have lacked or ignored the larger context of black-written plays like Raisin in the Sun.

The unforgettable Acting Black opens a space for discussion, and for progress. We still have a long way to go.