I first met Arthur French in the summer of 2001, when we were both in the cast of Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Hamlet. For those of you don’t know him, or have somehow been active in New York theater without meeting him, Arthur French is a true living legend of our community. He was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company, appearing in such legendary productions as The River Niger, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which marked his Broadway debut. He has not stopped since; he’s been perhaps the most active performer and acting teacher in the city for fifty years. I’ve now known him for fifteen of those; we’ve worked together on eighteen projects thus far (I’ve counted), sometimes alongside him as an actor, and sometimes with him directing. There’s lots to say about him, much of which I’ll save for a future post. The two important things to bear in mind right now are that he’s worked with companies that have fearlessly engaged with the politics of their time, and that he’s my friend.
A few weeks ago, Arthur French called and left me a message. It was to offer me a remarkable opportunity with a production he’s about to direct. The Negro Ensemble Company is mounting its 50th anniversary season, which kicks off with a revival of the play which formed the original germ of the company, Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence. Though written for an African-American company, it has one role intended for a Caucasian performer, and Arthur was offering it to me.
Day of Absence is a satirical vaudevillian fantasy, rooted in the Civil Rights politics of the Sixties. It tells the tale of a Jim Crow-era town which wakes up one day to find that all of its black residents have mysteriously vanished, leaving them with nobody to exploit. (The terrified racists are all played by black actors in clownish whiteface, which is that satirical vaudevillian element I mentioned above.) I play a character from outside the town – as the situation worsens, a member of the national broadcast press comes to report on the situation, speaking to people like the local leader of the Klan as if they were legitimate political figures, treating hatred and bigotry as if it’s perfectly normal.
Oh, wait. Did I say that this was rooted in the politics of the Sixties? Because that was last god damn week.
I’m sure you remember.
A man with no experience in public service, a man who explicitly called for the curtailing of freedoms of citizens based on their religion and their ethnicity while campaigning for the highest office in the land, was elected our President. His vice-president-elect is on record as supporting forced conversion therapy for LGBT youth. Yesterday, he appointed as his chief strategist the head of a website which actively promotes bigotry, the “intellectual” figurehead of the so-called “alt-right.” Instances of racial harassment, of spray-painted swastikas and vicious invective, have skyrocketed, even in such liberal bastions as my home town. Many of my friends genuinely fear for their safety, and they have genuine reasons to do so.
I had my moment of gloom and despair, of course. But my job as an artist is to fight back against this. Not by saying “hey, I’m an artist, you should do what I tell you to do,” because that clearly didn’t work out too well. No, my job – all of our jobs – right now is to create work that confronts head-on our capacity to rationalize hate. To understand it, to mock it, to mourn it, to denounce it – and hopefully, somehow, to defeat it. That was the reason Day of Absence was chosen in the first place, several months ago – all that’s happened is that the stakes have intensified.
The fight is real. And I will be fighting it, as best I can, under the leadership of my friend.
I'm proud to announce that Day of Absence is the next thing I'll be doing as an actor. And right now, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.