Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on a show.
I haven’t really talked about it, not because this is something I’m not liking. Quite the opposite.
I just know that the timing won’t be convenient for anyone to come see it. It’s not something groundbreaking or huge for my career. But it is something that is affecting me.
On Wednesday, I opened in a production of Singin’ Wid a Sword in my Han. You’ve most likely never heard of it. And this will be presented in libraries across Harlem, so there will be no fanfare about it.
I’ll be playing a slave.
Well, a slave will be principal among the parts I play in the show.
And I doubt I’m the first Black-tress to have initial reservations on playing such a role.
I think of Cicely Tyson when I reflect on it.
Miss Cicely is the picture of dignity and pride for a Black actor. Over a career spanning what, 50 years, she has never played a slave, a maid or any of the roles that used to be meant strictly for us.
Every actor knows Hattie McDaniel said, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” Yeah, it pays more, but others like to judge you because of it. So, I was hesitant when this role first came up. And yes, being paid for it was part of the convincing to take it on. But after the reading the story, I kept asking myself, “don’t the people in these anecdotes of history deserve to be heard?” The stereotypical slave dialect, (which was really just the way most people talked then), the “yassuh” and working in the fields. All of it is history we “know,” but we desperately don’t want to be reminded of.
These are the things I’ve been wrestling with.
But there is (as always) SO much more to the story than that. More than just the shame-inducing stories of rape and abuse and sub-human treatment.
These were people of a stock that found ways to not just survive and endure. They took that scraps they were thrown and made quilts.
The books that were used to punish them, they took and turned it into knowledge.
And they took the pieces of the past that they were adamantly denied and somehow, weaved them into a future, stretching FAR beyond anything any of them could see.
That’s what I take away from this. And I have the cast, the author and the director to thank for that.
I would do this play again in a heartbeat, and pray that maybe this time, I’ll do it justice.