Theatre Noir

I remember having to sit through a particular play when I was at high school, a play about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers.  It was put on by a local theatre group who came to our school and performed during a mandatory assembly.  The cast of the play was entirely black, and they were very adept at their roles, in which they were all required to act like black people.  I guess this could be called a type of very basic method acting.

Oh my, chilrens” they would say loudly, staying true to character, their eyes shining down on us like flashlights.  “Havah ya’lls evah herd uddah Bufflo Sojuhs?  Uh cowas you ain’ herd uddim, but I wonna why?”  Then they would clap their hands and laugh for no reason, I guess they learn in acting school that high school kids like that sort of thing.  “Tina, won’t chu tellim all bout dem Bufflo Soljuhs.”  Then Tina would begin her speaking part, sounding like Aunt Jemima reading the transcript of a Ken Burns documentary as the other perfectly-casted actor would smile, big and full, his teeth glowing like the keys on a Steinway.  Of course, at this point in our youthful indoctrination we already knew what the point of this play would be.  It was going to be a troupe of Negroes informing us that blacks could be every bit as adept at a given task as whites, if only we would stop seeing them as inferior.  In fact, at our school, this was the only reason a group of colored folk would ever come inside, unless they were there to clean up.  The Buffalo Soldiers were the greatest, most inspiring darkies to ever tap dance into battle, yet their story had been lost to history because of prejudiced honkies like us youngsters, and the duty of setting us straight had been placed in the sand papery hands of this theatre tribe.

It was irritating.  It was uncomfortable.  It was like sitting next to a chatty passenger on an airplane when all you want is to sit quietly and enjoy your complimentary almonds.  It was far worse than simply being bored in a classroom, not just because it was transparently a serious crock of baloney, but because it was also offensive.  It was like a Three Stooges skit, yet the audience had to suffer the eye-pokes.  I’m sure I was not the only student who knew what a load of crap this was, but this was the dawning of the Politically Correct Age, and it was just another in the litany of insults to our intelligence that constituted our public education.  Someday, I thought naively, school will be over.  I won’t have to suffer through this kind of garbage.  I won’t be constantly harangued for the imagined sins of my ancestors, whoever they were (I’m still not totally, sure.  The school never hosted any plays about them).  My assumption was that this kind of thing was childish and dopey simply because it was aimed at kids.  They were just teaching us to be nice, and what better way was there to be nice than to let a handful of coloreds tell us how bad they had it at the hands of our granddaddies and how they had been cut out of the history books because of the insecurities of our fathers.

Then, to my dismay, the very next year…they came back.  They came back and did the same play all over again.  In fact, they did it three years in a row, but not four.  I assume the actors had all either been incarcerated or had died of AIDS by my final year there, I don’t know, I don’t see a lot of plays.  I wasn’t surprised that black actors were coming to school to regularly abuse us with monkey-shines, but the fact that it was the same bad play each time seemed odd.  I guess they were used to playing mostly black schools and were used to students dropping out early, keeping the old material in front of fresh eyes.

Either way, that light-years-from-Broadway production has always stood out in my memory as a great example of the nature of racial indoctrination:  It was silly on its face, it took the good graces of a white audience for granted, and it sought to explain away black failure by villainizing whites.  The fact that I had to witness it three times in this particular form foreshadowed the experiences I would later have at college, as well as in the workplace.

Long after curtain call, I’m still witnessing this farce, over and over again.

One comment

  1. I don’t remember any plays but I had to sit through many similar assemblies. They even had us stand for the black national anthem once. Then at some point in high school I started skipping them. Then one day a sympathetic shop teacher saw what I was doing and let me stay in his classroom.